Swoon is based on a story that shocked the nation in 1924—two perverts (a.k.a., a gay couple) kidnapped and killed a young boy on a whim. Is the movie as compelling as the actual true crime?
In case you didn't know it, in 1924, two gay lovers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, kidnapped a young boy, killed him, and stuffed his body in a drainage pipe. They were caught, sent to trial, found guilty, and imprisoned. And each of those steps is covered in this movie.
In what seems a brilliant move, director and writer Tom Kalin filmed this movie in black and white, and interspersed vintage stock footage throughout to capture the feel of an old time movie. Unfortunately, the result is a truly affected film that screams to be looked at as an experimental indy, but knows all along that this was its intent.
Funky camera angles, campy musical cues, the inclusion of drag queens, and melodramatic line delivery plague this film in an attempt to create something avant-garde. Craig Chester as Nathan Leopold and Daniel Schlachet as Richard Loeb are instructed to show little emotion, clearly in an effort to demonstrate how cool, calculating, and unfeeling the actual couple was when killing a young boy in cold blood. It's a great idea in theory, but unfortunately, the result is a film that takes a shocking story and makes it utterly mundane. Not only do we feel nothing for the couple, who seem not even to have compassion nor passion for each other, but we don't even feel sad for the young boy who was murdered. We are left with no emotion whatsoever. Gay audiences won't be riled up with resentment because these men were tried in a time where being gay automatically meant one was deranged. That aspect of the film becomes farcical, with everyone crying "perversion" as if in satire. Metaphorical imagery, like the couple being spied on in their "bedroom" through a scene that has a lawyer describing their sex acts while a bed appears with them on it right in the middle of the court room packs absolutely no punch. The weaving in of topical issues of the 20s, like racism, the KKK, Freud, anti-Semitism, and unfair treatment of women, all falls flat and seems incredibly cliché. Perhaps the director was trying to be smart by making a film about a horrible tragedy that would leave audiences walking away feeling exactly what I did—nothing—to show how we could all be Nathan or Richard deep down. If that was the intent, he succeeded magnificently. But if that is the case, I feel I've been unfairly tricked into feeling nothing.
The most compelling moment of the film was actual footage of the real murderers in prison that was used to sum up the movie's end. That was the first moment that caught my attention. Too bad it was also the last moment of the film.
Swoon is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2:35:1, so even widescreen TV owners will experience letterboxing. The edges are sharp in the film, but it does seem to have tears, specks and dust, plus a grainy texture. But, considering it's filmed in black and white and includes interspersed stock footage, I'm not sure if the look was intentional. All I do know is, you shouldn't even think about watching it in progressive scan, because the quality of the image deteriorates. It looks much better in standard format.
The film is in Dolby 2.0 mono, which really befits the retro feel of the film. Surround would have come across as too technologically advanced.
The offering of extras goes like this:
FILM PHOTO GALLERY—About 20 images of scenes and stills from the film. The quality is better than the actual movie footage.
TRUE CRIME STORY PHOTO GALLERY—Only 8 photos. This is such a tease. Captions and background copy of the real case would have really been a highlight.
OTHER STRAND TITLES—4 previews, one being the trailer for Swoon.
COMMENTARY—commentary from writer/director Tom Kalin, plus star Craig Chester and the director of photography. The director speaks positively about all the aspects of this film that seem to have been its downside (he uses terms like "abstract" and "wacky idea"). His conversation is particularly technical, and the language used is better suited to a literary professor theoretically deconstructing a post-modern piece. See what I mean?
Swoon takes a long forgotten case of two gay men who killed a young boy in the 1920s, and in trying to tell it in a fresh, funky indy style, makes it, well, a case that will remain forgotten. I'm a huge fan of true crime stories, because they're so unbelievable, except for the fact that they are true. This movie didn't draw me in at all. The DVD itself is standard. Not the greatest offering of sound and image quality, but they work with the style of the film. The DVD extras lack any documentary material on the actual crime, which could have really enhanced the experience, and made up for the lack of detail (and juicy indulgent sensationalism) in the film. Give it a try if you want a beginning to end presentation of the facts, just don't expect for it to be a story that moves you.