This review was updated at 6:15 p.m.
In the closing credits of his first feature, “Twist,” Canadian actor-turned-director Jacob Tierney thanks Charles Dickens, whose well-loved novel about the orphan is the basis of this pic. Perhaps Dickens wouldn’t recognize his characters transposed to contempo Montreal’s gay-sex-for-sale scene, but his crime-infested London in “Oliver Twist” was considered pretty radical in its day. Pic will have limited commercial appeal, but with critical support (which is possible) it could return its modest costs in niche engagements and ancillary.
Although his is unlike any other version of the story ever filmed and despite a tendency to wallow in the sordidness of it all, Tierney (best known for his role in “The Neon Bible”), clearly has talent, not least in getting fine performances from his actors. Oliver, played by newcomer Joshua Close, is a rent-boy in this version of the story but the emphasis is as much on the character of the Artful Dodger, here called simply Dodge, and played with riveting intensity by Nick Stahl, as it is on Close’s handsome, soulful Oliver.
Dodge leaves the bed of the man with whom he’s spent the night and heads for a run-down diner, the Three Cripples, where he meets the sweet and sympatico Nancy (Michele-Barbara Pelletier). Dodge, a heroin addict, works for Fagin (Gary Farmer) who employs a group of young men all of whom live in a dormitory under his watchful eye (his office door bears the inscription, “Headmaster”).
Fagin carries out operations under the control of the Bill Sykes character, here called simply Bill, who lives with Nancy. One of the “twists” of Tierney’s screenplay is that Bill is never seen, an interesting idea, although it diminishes the drama at pic’s end.
Dodge recruits Oliver, who has run away from his umpteenth foster home (he left the last one because his undertaker foster-father made him sleep in a coffin). Obviously smitten with Dodge, who doesn’t reciprocate, Oliver willingly enters into the lifestyle of the gay hustler.
Shot on location in subdued colors, “Twist” offers much less hope for its troubled characters than Dickens did. Its very downbeat vision may turn off auds, which is a pity because the film has a great many qualities, not least the admirable performances of Stahl, Close and Pelletier. There is no music score, but the soundtrack is lifted by a number of mournful songs performed by, among others, Yann Perreau and Royal City.