A boy flies away from his Long Island home after killing his father; a scientist isolates the human sex drive in liquid form, accidentally ingests some and thereby transforms himself into a leper sex killer; a thief is sent to prison and its isolated world of erotic hierarchies: each of the disparate threads of Poison (1991), titled ‘Hero’, ‘Horror’ and ‘Homo,’ are delivered in radically different, easily distinguishable forms (the investigative report-style documentary, the low-budget drive-in 1950s sci-fi melodrama, and the lyrical memoir, respectively), yet are intimately linked by themes of ostracization and longing and interwoven in such a way that each thread reappears with cyclical regularity, loping and looping, creating a kind of narrative vertigo symbolized in ‘Horror’s flashing spiral motif. Todd Haynes’ resourceful and inventive feature debut was derived in part from the novels of Jean Genet and became a landmark for the New Queer Cinema, taking a top prize at Sundance and sparking an unusual career, one that’s allowed Haynes to bring his seemingly anti-populist sensibility to a number of surprisingly commercial, studio-backed products, such as the Douglas Sirk-homage/critique Far From Heaven (2002), the Bob Dylan biographical essay-drama I’m Not There (2007), and HBO’s mini-series adaptation of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce (2011).
Now available from Zeitgeist in a handsome 20th Anniversary Edition DVD, Poison already conveys much of what would come to mark Haynes’ approach, such as a fascination with ornate structural devices as vehicles for multi-tiered storytelling and the postmodern incorporation of popular cultural iconography (a characteristic that some might argue justifies footnotes). I’ve heard Haynes referred to as an academic or cerebral filmmaker, which strikes me as unfair, though his affection for mannered or even kitschy performances and his brazenly imitative stylistics no doubt encourages such derision. What such comments fail to account for are the spikes of genuine emotional engagement that make key scenes in his movies transcend their self-reflexive strategies: the heartbreaking end of Far From Heaven, the Heath Ledger sections of I’m Not There, the sleepy hand-job or sexy scar display scenes in Poison (displays of outright homoeroticism that many admirers no doubt wish Haynes would return to). Haynes films can feel calculated, but I don’t think they’re cold. Poison reminds us of how far Haynes has come, and just how deliciously unlikely his journey has been.