Justin Kelly’s King Cobra bravely re-tells the true story of gay porn icon Brent Corrigan (real name Sean Lockhart) and is by no means one for the faint-hearted. The mere mention of the word ‘pornography’ incites, more often than not, a knee-jerk reaction of sneering judgement and condescension but to dismiss this brash, ballsy, brazen film at face value as tawdry smut would be a mistake. Beneath the veneer of fake tan, rippling muscles and feigned ecstasy lies a striking amount of heart, soul and sincerity of emotion. Moments throughout do provoke uncomfortable shudders. From sunny San Diego, Brent (Garrett Clayton) arrives to Texas and no sooner has producer Stephen (Christian Slater) brought him home to upper-middle class suburbia than he is undressing, then masturbating on camera as an audition for his big break at Cobra Video. Stephen’s instructions are delivered with lascivious yearning and Slater’s piercing stare cries of a possessive, perverted personality. But as for the film as a whole there is a deeper layer of meaning here. Advancing in age means a desire to feel and look younger, to be wanted and the pain of bitter loneliness, living a lie even to his sister (a slight but effective cameo from Molly Ringwald). Similarly, Alicia Silverstone does a lot with a little as Brent’s mother, Janette.
There’s a pathetic, touching sadness to Slater’s performance. He spends his life behind a camera, ashamed of who he is, unable to be himself in reality. He thrives online and in Brent sees the making of a star. The young man’s surety and success comes quickly in a flashy montage backed by the Scissor Sisters’ Filthy/Gorgeous and attracts the attention of fellow hopefuls, Joe (James Franco) and Harlow (Keegan Allen). “No little bitches!” cries the former during a very look-at- our-bods workout sequence. Franco is hilarious at his bull in a china shop best here and Allen plays his easily-led and rather simple beau well but questions of control also arise between this pairing. Is their relationship one of manipulation or sincere affection?
By and large, sex acts throughout King Cobra retain the same simulated falseness as are paid for by subscribers to Stephen’s website but genuine intimacy between non-paying lovers enjoys a greater closeness, which at times is bracingly overt. Each of them haunted by the past – Joe the expectations and value system of a rigid evangelical upbringing, Harlow the mental and emotional scars of years of abuse – the stakes are all-or- nothing as two flames burn brightly. The collision of opposing groups over contracts and green backs leads to a barbarous and yet surprisingly affecting dénouement. A standout of the Dare strand at this year’s London Film Festival, King Cobra is a dirty little secret we should all talk about.
The BFI London Film Festival takes place from 5-16 October. Book your tickets at bfi.org.uk/lff.