A rape/seduction scene in which the woman is the perpetrator and the man is the victim: shocking and subversive, or just indie high concept? The irony of Tamara Hernandez’s scrappy first feature, Men Cry Bullets, is that it feels most conventional when trying to be provocative. Fortunately tongue isn’t so firmly planted in cheek to prevent genuine pathos from seeping through in the depicted relationship between meek drag queen Billy (Steven Nelson) and his aggressor, bad-girl writer Gloria (Honey Lauren). A film about dependency, it never absolves itself of its own dependency on the tropes of gritty indie cleverness. Nonetheless, this amateurish no-budget effort has earnest charm, and a sensitivity to the tragic dimension of amour fou that saves it from lapsing into shtick.
The psychosexual drama plays out around the premise that the would-be honeymoon killers must avenge the death of a pig. Don’t ask. More to the point, Billy, who makes a living impersonating his late mother, is ultimately driven to maintain this masochistic performance offstage, with ill-fated results. Meanwhile Gloria, when she can’t force her lover to be a real man, must become one herself. While the film delights in the perversity of its role reversals, it has the courage to admit that such pleasure is not utopian. Billy’s need for the abusive Gloria feels like a necessary though ultimately fatal attempt at resistance, as does Gloria’s need to destroy what she loves. As melodrama exploring the relation between power and gender, Men Cry Bullets is no Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. On the other hand, as the tale of losers struggling for relief from that apparent sham, the normal American family, it maintains a lighter touch but still “looks closer” than the infinitely more polished contrivance American Beauty.