Keep the Lights On (2012)
★★ / ★★★★
In 1998, Erik (Thure Lindhardt), a documentary filmmaker, meets Paul (Zachary Booth), a lawyer, through a phone sex line. They meet up, have sex, and decide that what they have might be worth pursuing on a more intimate level. But Paul has a secret: he has a habit of smoking crack cocaine. By 2000, this habit has grown into an addiction so ferocious, Paul does not come home or call for days. Erik cares for Paul so much that he feels it is his responsibility to hang on even if it becomes increasingly clear that their relationship is no longer worth salvaging.
“Keep the Lights On,” based on the screenplay by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, has a fascinating story about love and self-sacrifice that is untethered to sexual orientation despite its gay characters and their chosen lifestyles, but its style hinders it from becoming a truly special film. It feels as though we are only given half of the story which is problematic when we are asked to identify, relate, and empathize with its subjects.
The story takes place over a span of eight years. Since it strives to be an intimate drama, I would have preferred it to have had a longer running time given its scope. However, it runs for less than two hours which means sacrifices in terms of details must be made. It is counterintuitive because intimate dramas, if done right, tend to grow all the more beautiful and encompassing the more detail we asked to wade through. Its chosen style of storytelling makes for an uneasy viewing given that it jumps forward in time without much warning. Instead of being enveloped in the experience of Erik and Paul’s struggle, we are often left orienting ourselves and asking questions like whether a couple of days or months have passed since the scene that has just ended.
The initial phases of the relationship are mostly absent. They are provided to us in mere glimpses and so when later dialogue such as, “We had some good times together, didn’t we?” My brows wrinkled from the strain of trying to come up with an example. While it is not necessary to have everything spelled out for the audience, we must be able to be on the characters’ wavelengths during important moments of discovery. Since we are not given the chance to really appreciate the building blocks of the relationship, when the inevitable conflicts arrive, they are consistently difficult to buy into completely.
This is not to suggest that the acting is in any way subpar. On the contrary, Lindhardt and Booth seem capable of doing or projecting more despite the limitations of the film’s style. While Booth somehow still manages to look good despite his character’s drug addiction, I liked that I kept wondering if Paul felt ashamed for being enslaved to highs that quickly go away. Meanwhile, Lindhardt injects a sensitive ferociousness to Erik. The character made me question, if I were in a similar situation, how much I would able or willing to put up with. The love that he gives to Paul is significantly more than what he receives. It is unfair and it inspires us to be angry and frustrated of what the partners have or no longer have.
Despite my initial concerns that people, especially those who are not exposed to many LGBT individuals but are nonetheless open to learning more about them, might get the impression that all gays lead a lifestyle similar to the characters found here, “Keep the Lights On,” directed by Ira Sachs, has a story worth telling behind its missteps. I could not help but imagine the possibilities if it had not been so limited.