King Cobra

Based on a true story—and a deliriously tawdry one at that—Justin Kelly’s King Cobra is a sometimes agonizing study of love, lust, need, and money. It’s also a fascinating essay on the nature of star appeal, and the primacy of the Brand. The film centers on a young gay porn star who takes the name “Brent Corrigan.” When he breaks away from the pimpresario who launched him, Brent decides to peddle his talent elsewhere—after all, his body and his flirtatious looks to camera are what made him a star, and they haven’t changed. Then he discovers that, without the name, he’s nothing. Trademark recognition is all.

This is one of the most painful aperçus of a film that isn’t short on insights to make you wince—insights into vulnerability, acquisitiveness, exploitation, vanity, violence. It’s not surprising that such a study of human fallibility is set in the porn business—not because of any inherent moral failings in that world, but because cinematic depictions of its residents invariably end up showing people losing their lives, their marbles, their faith in themselves. Porn people wind up badly, if not dead then at least in psychic tatters: it’s the bottom line of movies such as Boogie Nights, Paul Schrader’s Auto Focus (which King Cobra somewhat resembles, although that film was about shared amateur, rather than professional, interests), and The Notorious Bettie Page (although you can speculate whether its heroine’s retreat into evangelical Christianity was a happy ending or not).

King Cobra centers on the fate of a gay porn producer based on Bryan Kocis, whose misadventures were recounted in the book Cobra Killer by Andrew E. Stoner and Peter A. Conway: Bryan is here renamed Stephen and played by a disarmingly mild, self-effacing Christian Slater. The film begins with starry-eyed teenager Sean—played by Garrett Clayton, from Disney’s Teen Beach Movie—showing up at Stephen’s house for an audition. This consists of him writhing in his shorts on the sofa and making come-hither eyes at the camera—which is plenty to persuade Stephen, who directs homemade gay porn under the King Cobra label, that he has a new star on his hands. The boy and his mentor are a perfect match: the older man’s appreciative eye is fuel for the vanity of the young stud-in-the-making, who asks in a pleading voice, “Hey, how was I?” “You were amazing. You have something very, very special,” replies Stephen—music to his protégé’s ears.

King Cobra

It’s not long before Stephen is paying Brent serious money for hardcore work, which he takes to eagerly—in a briskly comic montage set to the Scissor Sisters’ “Filthy/Gorgeous”—and in which Brent never fails to give his patented ingénu glance to the camera, which is his ever-faithful mirror. But narcissism feeds itself and gets jaded. Stephen walks in one day on his live-in star: “Are you still reading about yourself?” Brent sighs: “If one more fan dedicates a blog to me, I will just die.”

Also taking an interest in Brent, both as fans and as wolves slavering to get in on the financial action, are another porn-making duo: Joe (James Franco, who previously starred in Kelly’s debut feature I Am Michael, 2015) and his star/boyfriend Harlow (Keegan Allen, who manages to be at once lunkishly comic and deeply menacing). Joe and Harlow run a company named Viper Boyz, which specializes in much rougher stuff than the benign King Cobra; Joe’s product harps more on bikes, tattoos, and muscles. Joe also pimps Harlow out for private customers—partly for profit, partly because jealousy seems to have started out as a turn-on for him, although it has now turned into a noxious poison.

The film keeps us wondering what will happen when these two troubled ménages collide—which they eventually do, to hair-raising effect. Before that, Kelly’s script (the story is credited to him and D. Madison Savage) astutely draws parallels between the pair, especially where possessiveness and uncontrollable need are concerned. Both Stephen and Joe get their pleasure, and their income, from watching the object of their passion with other men, but they can’t control the desires of others: this becomes acutely painful for Stephen when the muscle boy who stars with Brent in a poolside encounter (hilariously played for maximum dopey woodenness) sticks around to play computer games, and then more, to Stephen’s chagrin. King Cobra is very good on the agony of the amorous auteur, the love pangs of the Svengali Syndrome: both shy, closeted Stephen and ex-stud Joe are keenly aware of being older men, of feeling unwanted and being terrified of it (Stephen is shown at one point with his features covered in an avocado face pack).

King Cobra

But King Cobra also shows the merciless exploitation of young muscle: Stephen is not only ripping Brent off financially, he has also ruthlessly trademarked his nom de guerre. When Brent decides to go solo, everyone in the industry would love to work with him, but without the “Brent Corrigan” label, he’s worth nothing: his name has become the source of arousal that he thought his body was. That’s how it works in the fetishistic world of showbiz (after all, who’d rush out to buy the latest album by Stefani Germanotta or Shawn Corey Carter?).

One reason the film recalls Auto Focus—which centered on the secret sex-tape life of ’60s television star Bob Crane—is because of its peculiar tone, which counterpoints ultimately horrific melodrama with a kind of domestic farce. Franco and Allen are terrific together, sketching out their characters’ folie à deux, and they can be very funny: a delicious moment (OK, perhaps obvious, but delicious anyway) has Allen’s Harlow glance around baffled when someone mentions “the elephant in the room.” And Franco can be downright terrifying. As one of the film’s producers, it’s quite possible that he insisted on a close-up clause in his contract, but those close-ups are worth it: his deranged, tormented rictuses as Joe goes increasingly off the rails are something you don’t forget quickly.

There’s a lovely counterpoint, in fact, between the almost bland gentleness of one couple’s suburban world (where everything’s sweetly sotto voce and sex scenes take place largely on the sofa) and the intensity of the other pair’s more aggressively artificial, fantasy-based life, where militaristic techno is the de rigueur soundtrack. By the way, Kelly’s use of music, through it sometimes seems to hit obvious ironic notes, is memorable: Tim Kvasnosky’s score is heavy with thumping synths, and one key scene features a deranged electronic reworking of “Ave Maria.”

King Cobra

For all the tabloid horror and manic farce, human vulnerability emerges strongly—and Slater’s gentle loner is a beautifully relaxed performance, playing poignantly against memories of the actor’s erstwhile bad-boy charm. Clayton, whose Brent is forever shooting the coyest of twink glances in the air—even when there’s no one to look at Brent but himself—plays his character as a sweet-natured, seemingly empty-headed narcissist, and the casting of this Disney player follows the same good-kids-go-bad logic that Gregg Araki has been practicing for years and that Harmony Korine picked up on so effectively in Spring Breakers.

In a similar mode, and not a little self-consciously, Kelly casts two female survivors of teen stardom: Molly Ringwald as Stephen’s supportive but not quite in-the-know sister, and Alicia Silverstone as Brent’s mom. Silverstone hardly looks that much older than Clayton, and the odd flirtatiousness between mother and son is both affecting and suggestive: it makes you think that the boy has, consciously or not, learned his own seduction tricks from her, who’s young enough to make you imagine that she’s been similarly precocious in her past. King Cobra isn’t always the subtlest film—why should it be, it’s about a world in which subtlety’s usually considered superfluous—but it has grace notes like this that make it distinctive, and distinctively touching.

Jonathan Romney is a contributing editor to Film Comment and writes its Film of the Week column. He is a member of the London Film Critics Circle.