This review was commissioned by Patrick McClafferty! If you’d like to commission a review, please see my Commissions page.
WARNING: the following review contains discussions of child pornography and abuse.
There are very, very few queer-themed thrillers that I actually like. Stranger by the Lake is pretty much a classic at this point, The Talented Mr. Ripley is unfairly underrated, and Paul Verhoeven’s The Fourth Man really needs to be seen by more American audiences, but that’s about it as far as I’m concerned. Most of the reason I tend to hate thrillers with major LGBTQ characters is that they either feature said characters doing awful depraved things Because Gay or Because Trans as basically their entire motive (most of the reason I’ve never been able to work up the energy to defend Basic Instinct) or are just painfully low-rent and badly made (Hellbent, widely touted as the first slasher with an all-gay cast, springs to mind).
When I heard that writer-director Justin Kelly was going to make a film about the still very recent and very high-profile murder of Bryan Kocis, a gay porn producer known for exploiting multiple underage boys, including former big name porn star and current indie writer-director Sean Paul Lockhart (former stage name Brent Corrigan), I was immediately resistant for the reasons mentioned above. And when I heard that James Franco, a man I despise in pretty much every way a human can be despised, was producing the project, I was even more resistant. Franco has a long and storied history of colonizing queer spaces and using the “possibility” that he might be queer as a fetishy hook to draw people in while proving that he doesn’t really get queerness at all. That aside, I do think there was a good film to be made from this case. There’s a lot to cover here: sexual abuse, child grooming, how queer youth can be drawn to self-destruction, all factors in a case that could make for a harrowing film that really understands why this case stuck in the (gay) popular consciousness.
Holy fucking Christ is King Cobra not that movie.
Kocis’ murder and Lockhart’s involvement in the legal battles before and after it were both fixtures of my queer youth. I was the kind of kid that was obsessed with sex and morbid things, but yet also afraid of them, so learning about the sordid details of this story instilled in me a fear of sex but also a fascination with pornography, how it was made, and who made it. So, for me, seeing a movie like this get so many things about the case so egregiously wrong would be like if someone made an O.J. Simpson trial movie where O.J. was white and Marcia Clark was played by Paris Hilton, or if someone made a 9/11 movie where Mark Wahlberg played a Fine Upstanding American Citizen who personally stopped the planes from hitting the towers. But it isn’t just that the movie takes liberties with what actually happened and who these people were: of course it’s going to do that. It’s a movie. Where King Cobra gets into trouble is in how it mis-applies the principle of “non-judgmental empathy.”
Justin Kelly’s other well-known film I Am Michael (which I have not seen), about Michael Glatze, a gay activist who later renounced being gay and became a pastor, was roundly criticized by numerous people for widely varying reasons. It’s too sympathetic to Glatze, it’s too harsh towards Glatze, it doesn’t say much of anything about him; the perspectives on this movie were numerous. As best as I can tell from reading interviews with Kelly about the film, that’s what Kelly was aiming for: a non-judgmental but empathetic portrayal of a man who struggled with faith and sexuality. Again, I haven’t seen I Am Michael: maybe it’s dogshit. But with that film, I feel from reading a variety of perspectives on the film like he at least made the kind of movie he wanted to make.
With King Cobra, on the other hand, I have no idea what the hell Kelly was trying to do. There are, in fact, indicators that he’s going for the same “non-judgmental but empathetic” approach he was trying for in I Am Michael, but almost all of them are directed towards Bryan Kocis, of all people. I repeat: the man who made actual child pornography multiple times with full knowledge of what he was doing and likely traumatized them for life is supposed to be empathized with in this film. The fact that Kocis was charged with child pornography in 2002 before Lockhart ever entered his life is not even given a passing mention, he’s given time with his sister and her family (played by Molly Ringwald, bizarrely) to humanize him, and the fact that Lockhart was underage when he began shooting with Cobra Video is treated as a shocking twist revealed only at the midpoint, so that Kocis can look like a victim who had his life (of making actual child porn) stolen from him by some bratty kid. He’s not even called “Bryan Kocis” in the film: his name was changed to “Stephen” for reasons I can’t fathom in the slightest. Was it to protect his family or his memory? If so, why wasn’t the same courtesy extended to Lockhart, who still talks about his trauma from the events to this day?
The “best” reason I can think of for why Kocis’ name was changed for the film is that the “Stephen” character is supposed to be a composite of Kocis and Lockhart’s older boyfriend at the time, which creates its own set of problems. In reality, Lockhart was enticed into the world of pornography by said boyfriend, who had him audition via webcam and also introduced him to a generally very extreme, excessive lifestyle, which was enabled by Kocis. This boyfriend does not appear in the film at all, making it out to be Lockhart’s choice entirely to audition for Kocis (in person, in the film). Considering that the rest of the film only shows Lockhart as acting like a spoiled, bratty houseboy (intentionally playing video games and having sex with another performer too loud to make Stephen mad and jealous, begging for expensive gifts, etc.), this is a huge problem, as it trivializes what he went through and is even somewhat victim-blaming. While King Cobra is credited as being based on the book Cobra Killer by Andrew E. Stoner and Peter A. Conway, I honestly think its depiction of Lockhart pulls more from the highly popularized (and terrible) Rolling Stone article “Death of a Porn King,” which makes multiple references to Lockhart being “no innocent boy” and “hardened,” calling to mind numerous rapists’ renderings of their victims as “flirtatious” and “acting older than their age.” While watching the film I wondered if I was being too harsh and only seeing what I wanted to see in regards to how it depicted Lockhart, but I ended up coming down on the side of “this film does not like or want to understand Lockhart, very much unlike how it treats Kocis” based on three things:
- Lockhart’s entry into performing in porn is done as a wannabe camp montage that regrettably uses one of my favorite Scissor Sisters songs, “Filthy/Gorgeous.” During said montage, Lockhart repeatedly looks into the camera smugly, which is something no porn performer worth their salt ever does unless it’s specifically for a POV shot.
- The too-fast “thriller” pacing completely upends any attempt at a real, human characterization. The film offers very little insight into Lockhart’s decision to do porn other than a very vague mention of needing better pay than a part-time job, and doesn’t illustrate why that was a need in the first place by just blazing through his introduction at light speed. Similarly poorly paced is his transition from supposedly loving doing porn to hating it and only doing it for the cash, which is supposedly set off by a weirdly framed sex scene between him and Stephen that seems rapey in the moment due to the pounding, chintzy Cliff Martinez-lite score yet is also used to “humanize” Stephen (gross), but later Lockhart seems very willing to reconcile with Stephen, so it’s very unclear what the intended effect is supposed to be. There’s a third significant fumble after the murder scene, wherein Lockhart’s trauma and feelings are encompassed in a single scene of him vomiting in a toilet before he breezes through the sting operation and into the film’s epilogue.
- That fucking epilogue. The film gives Lockhart a morality pet in the form of another porn performer named Mikey that he loudly fucks so that Stephen can get jealous. Mikey jokes about “kidnapping” Lockhart from the life of porn that he kinda-sorta-maybe-who-the-fuck-knows-hates, and later shows up at a dinner date with Lockhart to question him about his decision to start his own porn site where he writes and directs instead of “real filmmaking” like he’d always dreamed. The last we see of Lockhart is him directing a porn shoot that he’s also starring in, with multiple dialogue callbacks to things that Stephen said him in the first act (“You have something very special.”), looking very pleased with his efforts. Are we supposed to take from this that Lockhart and Kocis were basically the same person? Because if it is, then it’s putting direct parallels between a child pornographer and an abuse victim that eventually went on to creating porn that was safe for the performers above all else and did eventually go into “real” filmmaking (which the film never mentions). Fuck that noise.
I could go on about other things too, like how this supposedly non-judgmental film added a moralistic revenge element to Kocis’ murder by adding a backstory about Harlow Cuadra being sexually abused as a child that has no basis in fact and is really just a clichéd concession to genre that doesn’t get the examination it deserves, or how James Franco saying “daddy” in a sexual context makes me want to sew up all my holes and become a monk, or how little menace noted slime lord Christian Slater projects as Stephen, but really, it’d be a waste of time. The point is, King Cobra is a film that’d rather give you cheap, tawdry genre thrills over exploring real, difficult issues of trauma and abuse. There’s nothing wrong with a cheap thrill, per se, but not when it comes at the expense of human dignity.