Playwright Craig Lucas was around in the days when Hollywood was tentatively baby-stepping toward acknowledging homosexuality and the AIDS epidemic. Adapted from his play, 1990's Longtime Companion seems tame by today's standards, but it was a breakthrough at the time, and his underrated Prelude To A Kiss proclaimed love's power to transcend the boundaries of age and gender. Set in 1995, just two years after Philadelphia, Lucas' powerful directorial debut The Dying Gaul takes place in this world of compromise and magnifies it to the level of Greek tragedy. The elevated melodrama, whipped into a minor frenzy by compositions by minimalist pioneer Steve Reich, can seem a little unbalanced and disproportional, with incidents that go far beyond what these characters (to say nothing of fate) seem capable of doing. And yet if viewers allow this passion to take full flower, Lucas' beautiful script and a trio of first-rate performances carry the material with an intermittently breathtaking urgency.
In the opening scenes, Lucas alter ego Peter Sarsgaard gets summoned to the studio lot for a meeting with studio executive Campbell Scott, who's interested in buying his script for a movie called The Dying Gaul. Sarsgaard had written it as a tribute to his ex-lover, who died of AIDS after undergoing a painful series of experimental treatments, but Scott lets him know right away that the man will have to be changed to a woman. A compromise this deep is enough to drive Sarsgaard laughing off the lot, but Scott and his million-dollar offer are just too persuasive to a penniless writer with no credits to his name. Things get infinitely more complicated when Scott and Sarsgaard become lovers, not least because of Scott's wife Patricia Clarkson, whose strong platonic connection to Sarsgaard draws him into a dangerous love triangle.
Clarkson's interest in Sarsgaard leads to a fascinating subplot in which she tracks him down in an Internet chat room and engages with him under a pseudonym, forging a complicated dynamic that runs the gamut from compassion to torment. Lucas may not have written the play with these performers in mind, but it's hard to imagine three actors more ideally cast: Clarkson slips immense vulnerability into a brittle patrician package, Scott's gift for elocution gets a workout in several bravura monologues, and Sarsgaard suggests the inner turmoil of a man whose conscience literally haunts him. In a confident directorial debut, Lucas doesn't try to hide his theatrical leanings, and the film has the raw sensation of a great stage play, with more emotional intensity than conventional screen melodramas. So what if it all gets to be too much in the end?