Despite its title, Licensed to Kill isn't a thriller. Rather, it is a thriller, just not the sort one would expect. Arthur Dong's documentary -- which won two awards at the latest Sundance fest -- may not take place in a world of cleverly miniaturized weapons and gadget-rigged cars, but the chill and fear it generates are more genuine than the 1989 James Bond film its name evokes.
Arthur Dong was assaulted 20 years ago on the streets of San Francisco by gay-bashing teenagers cruising for a target. (He managed to get away, but his attackers proceeded around the corner and beat up another man; ironically, given the role of religion in promoting antigay prejudice, the victim wasn't gay, but he was a priest.) His initial response was the unanswerable Why me? But later, he became obsessed with the more complex and socially useful question: Why them?
His answer -- or at least his notes toward an answer -- is contained in this examination of seven prison inmates serving time or sitting on death row for murders motivated by homophobia. (Two, alas, are from Texas.) Some of them are seen in police interrogation tapes; most are questioned by Dong about what they were thinking and how they look back on their actions.
The least interesting are the most obvious stereotypes: Jeffrey Swinford, a half-witted redneck, expresses virtually no remorse as he looks back on the murder he committed. "I wouldn't lose no sleep over it," he says, shrugging. "By the time we got arrested, to be honest, I'd nearly forgotten about it.... I don't want to sound like it wasn't a big deal, you know, but it was just one less problem the world had to mess with." He says later, "How can somebody be proud of being a dicksucker? That don't make no sense to me," adding with a grin, "I don't have any opinion whatsoever for homosexuals, except they all oughta be taken care of."
Swinford is so flat-out defective it's impossible to do more than shrug off his attitudes. He comes across as a dangerous idiot who likely would have found his way to one heinous activity or another, regardless.
Donald Aldrich, imprisoned in Huntsville's Ellis One Unit, is hardly sympathetic, but he at least establishes observations that provide some analytical value. For one thing, part of his motivation was simply Willie Sutton-like "good sense"; he made a habit of robbing gay men instead of straights because they made easier targets. "You can ... rob a 7-Eleven and for 15, 20 bucks, get your face on videotape, have somebody that's gonna call the police," he explains. "Or ... you can go to a park, rob somebody that's out in the dark, come away with a helluva lot more. Because of the fact that they're a homosexual and they don't want people to know it, they're not gonna go report it to the police. Who you gonna go rob? Where you're gonna get in the least amount of trouble."
But Aldrich's motives were not entirely rooted in greed. "I'm not scared of death," he says. "I've wanted to die several times.... My life's been fucked up since I was a small kid," he notes, explaining why he'd rather be executed than spend life in prison. His actions were motivated in part by general hatred for the world and specific hatred for gays, because of a cousin who molested him when he was nine.
Curiously, Aldrich also makes passing reference to having gotten sexual pleasure from other men, but he apparently declined to elaborate. The implication is clear that his hostility may be a reaction to his own loathed desires.
Aldrich's possible homosexual self-hatred is only a theory; but in the case of Jay Johnson, the film's most haunting and problematic subject, the connection is absolutely explicit. Johnson is a movie unto himself. While the other killers on display appear to be from poor or educationally deprived backgrounds, Johnson's voice and manner of speech immediately mark him as middle-class, even well-to-do. At the same time, he is a bundle of unhappy contradictions.
Half-black, half-white, he grew up feeling excluded from both cultures. His father, an official at the Bethel College and Seminary, apparently a fundamentalist institution, filled him with vicious fire-and-brimstone attitudes about homosexuality. At the same time, Jay had already secretly identified himself as gay.
While his religious upbringing told him his impulses were evil, he couldn't control himself. Night after night, he went cruising in disguise. "I was disgusted with what I was doing," he tells the camera. "And, quite frankly, I thought to myself, If I shut these places down, my temptation to do that would be less." Using murder to terrorize the gay community into abandoning its hangouts, he says, "is a constructive, moral thing to be doing."
Johnson seems a lot happier in prison, where his sexual orientation is now well- known. He is relieved to be no longer living a double life, yet he still thinks homosexuality is immoral. He is still religious, yet announces that "religion is a vicious thing." Even in his current, arguably more adjusted mental state, there is a spooky detachment in the way he speaks about his crimes. He refers to his first murder as "the Joel Larson incident," denying his horrible act any labels that would convey its evil. He describes the details of the killings as though he were explaining how tough it is to find a parking space. Only when he finishes speaking do his nervous eyes betray some emotional knowledge of what he has done.
As in his earlier Coming Out Under Fire -- about the long history of gays and lesbians in the American military -- Dong shows himself expert at editing and organizing his material for maximum interest. It's a judgment call whether his broad strategy here is successful or not; by including such a range of murderers, he denies us the luxury of simplification and resolution. The more you wish he'd point a finger at the single biggest cause of gay-bashing, the less willing he seems to do so.
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Because of the backgrounds of most of the men, he inevitably returns several times to the role of religion -- and of Christian churches in particular -- in creating a climate of hatred and intolerance. He quotes Leviticus 20:13, which, at least in my Revised Standard Version of King James, seems unambiguous in its denunciation of male homosexuality: "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them," God informs Moses. To be fair, in that same paragraph, God, who is hardly a gentle shepherd here, also commands death as the penalty for so many actions -- sleeping with your neighbor's wife, sleeping with your stepmother, cursing your mother or father, sleeping with your daughter-in-law, and, of course, the ever-popular trafficking with Moloch, among others -- that 90 percent of the world, including many clergymen, would be hanging from gibbets if a literal reading were consistently applied.
Of course, there have been numerous scholarly challenges to the translators' word choices and readings of context. But these, while valuable, seem merely a way to bring us to some "correct" reading of the Bible instead of, more logically, challenging the very notion of its absolute holiness. Dong basically opens the door to the vast subject of religion's role in forming reactionary social attitudes without following through on it. Of course, that's more than he can shoehorn into this particular movie, but it would make a damned good topic for his next one.
Licensed to Kill.
Directed by Arthur Dong.
Showing 7:30 p.m. Friday, October 10 and 7:30 p.m. Friday, October 17 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet. Dong will appear in person October 10.