King Cobra. 2016. Directed & Written by Justin Kelly; based on the book from Andrew E. Stoner & Peter A. Conway.
Starring Garrett Clayton, Christian Slater, Molly Ringwald, James Kelley, Keegan Allen, James Franco, Robby Johnson, Rosemary Howard, & Spencer Rocco Lofranco.
RabbitBandini Productions/Yale Productions/SSS Entertainment
Not Rated. 91 minutes.
Before I heard of this Franco-produced flick I’d not actually heard of the real life owner of Cobra Video, Bryan Kocis. He founded the gay porn studio, but also dealt with various legal struggles throughout his life: from charges of sexual assault on a minor, corruption of a minor, to bankruptcy and more. A difficult life, indeed. If even the basics of this tale are true, Kocis was a deviant who believed he fell in love, all the while exploiting the boy he said he cared about.
King Cobra is a fast tracked version of the Kocis story, with Christian Slater playing a stand-in for the real man, a man named Stephen. The object of his affection? Sean Paul Lockhart, a.k.a gay pornstar Brent Corrigan; played by baby-faced Garrett Clayton. What comes out is a story full of themes from the post-modern American dream to obsession to the struggle for love in industry where people aren’t people, they’re merely objects to be owned; by a producer, by millions.
Going in I thought there’d be a cheap exploitation aspect to the film. Not saying there isn’t a fair bit of skin. Director-writer Justin Kelly includes as much as he has to, in order to further explore the betrayal and deception at the heart of the story. And this, above all, is what matters most – the broken hearts left behind in the wake of the porn industry.
It’s known that the real Lockhart has said this story has “contempt for queer culture” and that it mocks pornography. The first I don’t agree with, whatsoever. Especially when the men are shown in an honest light, at all angles, never judged. As for the mockery of porn, I don’t agree; however, I do think it’s critical of the industry. Of how we allow the buying and selling of people, all culminating in the shocking real events that the story illustrates so vivid.
The dark side of the industry is in full effect throughout King Cobra. Aside from the relationship between fictional Kocis and Lockhart, which brings up issues of sex with a minor, the plot goes even darker with Joe (James Franco) and Harlow (Keegan Allen); most of all the latter. Harlow’s story is sad – the saddest – full of despair and loneliness and a search for happiness that’ll surely never end. The hurt of his character is terrifyingly real, and Allen plays him with a haunting, dead-eyed look.
Harlow and Joe represent the desperate side of the industry, the men who resort to prostituting themselves. On the other side, Stephen’s obsession with Lockhart turns their relationship into one of pimp and prostitute, too. Like a pimp, Stephen wants total control over Brent, so much so he makes the whole thing into a personal and legal battle; something which goes terribly wrong, for all of them. Meanwhile there’s Lockhart in the middle just trying to make money and find a nice man. Like a postmodern American
Moreover, Stephen represents a side of the gay community we don’t often see when we get those normal, positive looks at regular gay men and lesbian women (which are important in their own ways for representation). What he, and his real life counterpart Kocis, illustrate is how some men almost go back into the closet even though they’re out. They don’t fully accept themselves. In his case, it’s because he likes underage boys. It gets so bad that Stephen lives in a “cookie cutter community” and he’s there amongst his neighbours, all the while he takes Brent and other young men inside, out by the pool, and films them fucking. He lives in the open, though keeps a barrier up between him and the world.
Immediately, the stylised cinematography with its neon glow and filtered shots grabs attention. We feel as if we’re in an actual porno most times, not from the actual bare skin onscreen but the visual style. At other times the frames are draped in shadow, the way most of the characters are all under a cloak of darkness, living their lives on camera yet also behind it in the figurative dark spaces of life from one trick to the next.
The performances hooked me in. Allen is my favourite, he’s intense and brooding without being overtly animated; he makes you feel the darkness of his character Marlow. Alongside him as Joe, the ever interesting Franco provides us with a ferocious, unrelenting character whose sexual appetite does not mix well with business.
Still, the best performance of all has to be from Slater; his late career is proving full of surprises from Nymphomaniac to Mr. Robot and this film. Stephen isn’t a likeable character, he’s a sleazy guy. But Slater doesn’t play him sleazy, he somehow imbues the guy with a heart, no matter how dark. He’s a desperately clingy man, one who uses his powerful position as producer to rope in young boys with whom he can play, and hopefully control. He’s sad, he’s nasty. And there’s so much humanity to this otherwise monstrous man with Slater in the role.
What I love most about the character is that the writing allows him to be who he is, instead of trying to pretend like the gay community can’t have any bad apples. The real Lockhart’s criticism feels unfair, though admittedly I’m not a gay man and so my opinion isn’t the be all, end all. That being said, I think the best representation for any community, any race (et cetera), also involves those bad characters along with the good.
There’s a major loss of innocence in King Cobra. One thing Marlow makes very clear is that everyone has a story. What people see on that screen, the flesh and the orgasms, is the end result of victimisation, of broken hearts and broken dreams. It is what comes at the end of a long road of pain. I don’t care if you think that’s not cool of me. Personally, I don’t support the porn industry. Nor do I judge anybody; I used to watch it, then awhile back made a personal pledge not to engage with it any longer. I just don’t think it’s healthy, you can’t fault me for that.
Neither can you fault the film. These characters are real people, if not dramatised for the sake of entertainment. Their story is largely real and is, aside from what actually happened to Kocis a.k.a Stephen, also the story of many others who’ve been sucked into the undertow of the exploitative, violent industry of pornography.
King Cobra doesn’t ask or answer any big questions. It looks deeply at the damage done to people who’ve fallen prey to the predators in the industry, as well as those who were preyed upon before and then came to the industry later only to be re-victimised. If you have a level head about the topic in general, this movie’s for you. There isn’t any judgement. Then again, people like Kocis deserved to be judged, only they don’t deserve what he got, either.