The game of tracking an auteur’s muse takes on distinct dimensions when considering the work of Gregg Araki. While Woody and Quentin toy with their awkwardly assured creative types and amazonian blondes, Araki projects his own lust objects onto the screen: slinky, omnisexual brunette males whose fiery post-adolescent hormones are compounded by the burdensome weight of the universe. It’s hard to think of another queer filmmaker who remains so exuberantly adherent to his own muse pattern, at least in terms of allowing his presumed pinup fantasies to dictate his lead casting.
It’s a pattern he didn’t fall into until after his breakout third feature, The Living End (1992), whose Craig Gilmore and Mike Dytri were more beefcake Jason Priestleys, of sorts. But 1993 saw the arrival of Totally F***ed Up, and thus the rise of James Duval, the black-haired, angst-ridden anti-twink whom Araki’s camera would follow through the paranoid peaks and camp valleys of the Teen Apocalypse Trilogy. Duval would lead to Jonathan Schaech, the Doom Generation (1995) and Splendor (1999) star whose musculature would slightly tweak the formula, and Schaech would give way to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the hustler of Mysterious Skin (2004) whose dark features and beanpole build embodied the Araki ideal.
That same ideal seems to have hit its cumulative peak—its climax, if you will—in Thomas Dekker, the transfixing, model-gorgeous star of Kaboom, Araki’s new return to Teen Apocalypse form. Though technically rougher around the edges than Araki’s previous muses, with a goth-Bieber coif and masculine stubble, Dekker, 23, is easily the director’s most polished. From the first candy-colored frame of Kaboom, a madcap sex noir awash in vivid hues, the hair on (and hanging in) Dekker’s face is little more than a dark dusting to contrast his poreless skin and gleaming eyes and lips, which are wildly saturated right along with his American Apparel wardrobe. His slightly exotic, slightly rugged look is the intersection of Duval’s multi-ethnicity and Gordon-Levitt’s virility, just as his character, SoCal college freshman Smith, blends Duval’s recurring unease with Gordon-Levitt’s formidable bedroom prowess in Mysterious Skin. He’s the ideal ideal.
His impact is fortified, in familiar Araki fashion, by the juxtaposition of another Araki type: the vulnerable, naïve blonde. Nowhere (1997) saw Duval quietly pine for goldi-locked Nathan Bexton, an innocent who eventually submits and reciprocates, if only to be interrupted by trademark otherwordly outrageousness. Mysterious Skin paired Gordon-Levitt with Bexton clone Brady Corbett, whose broken character shares a sexual-abuse history with Gordon-Levitt’s, and might have shared more if not for his own otherworldly interruption and subsequent asexuality. But Dekker is given the biggest boost of all in Chris Zylka, whose godlike drink of water, aptly named Thor, is the tip-top in fair-haired, starkly contrasted, quivering inexperience. A constant source of sexual tension for the sexually “undeclared” Smith, Thor has carnal power, but his chief function is to augment the muse, who’s as turned on by Thor’s inferior intellect as his golden-boy hotness. The juxtaposition is never stronger than in a coolly lit dream sequence in which Smith schools Thor on the merits of guy-on-guy action. It’s the characters’ association, brought to teasing, fleeting fruition.
Dekker is certainly game for filling the Araki muse role. Having appeared in genre fare like Heroes and The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and cultish horror like Laid to Rest and last year’s All About Evil, he’s versed in outlandish material; however, he doesn’t resort to excess when tackling it. Like Duval (who, it should be noted, also appears in Kaboom), he grounds his oversexed, supernatural, pseudo-Lynchian circumstances with earnestness, while still exuding a certain necessary irony. Like Gordon-Levitt, he nails a shaky independence and an all-encompassing attractiveness, effortlessly appealing to males and females. Like both, but even more so, he holds the screen exquisitely.
It will be interesting to witness the trajectory of Dekker’s career post-Kaboom. Will he make like Gordon-Levitt and use his Araki affiliation as one more stepping stone toward blockbuster projects? Or will he follow Duval, sticking to under-the-radar titles and perhaps reuniting with Araki? The latter seems more likely, given Dekker’s offbeat filmography and given the fact he hasn’t quite shown Gordon-Levitt’s acting caliber or mainstream bankability. What seems an inevitability, if not already a reality, is Dekker’s status as a gay icon, a status swiftly earned by most who step into Araki’s frame. Duval amassed a devoted audience in the ’90s, and Gordon-Levitt, if not already admired for Latter Days (2003), clinched his following the moment he ensnared his first john in Mysterious Skin. Whether he re-teams with Araki or not, Dekker, whose character in Heroes incited a gay controversy when written to stay in the closet, is keeping on with queer-themed work, starring in HBO’s Cinema Verite (due in April) as Lance Loud, a gay icon in his own right. Looking further ahead, and beyond the queer realm, he’s attached to Foreverland (2012), a road-trip drama that will likely offer him broader exposure. Wherever the embers may fall, the Kaboom star, thanks in large part to Araki’s special spark, seems primed to blow up.
R. Kurt Osenlund is an editor and critic native to Philadelphia. His work has appeared in ICON magazine, South Philly Review, Bucks Local News, and online at TheFilmExperience.net. He blogs at Your Movie Buddy.