Todd Haynes’s Poison (1991) is a triptych film that tethers intercut stories, “Hero,” “Horror,” and “Homo,” to the themes of sexuality, isolation, and surveillance. The first story “Hero” is shot as a pseudo-documentary, following the disappearance of Richie Beacon, a seven-year-old boy who takes off flying into the sky after shooting and murdering his father. “Horror” is a sci-fi thriller about scientist Dr. Thomas Graves, who isolates the “elixir of human sexuality” in order to study the “mysteries of the sex drive.” After accidentally drinking his concoction, Dr. Graves becomes a fugly, murderous leper. The third narrative is “Homo,” inspired by French author Jean Genet’s short-stories. “Homo” meets longtime thief John Broom in prison, who is obsessively attracted to Jack Bolton, a prisoner he knows from a former boys reformatory school. Upon release, Poison caused controversy, receiving backlash from both the U.S.’s right-wing as well as gay audiences. Poison delivers experimental cinematography to create a conceptual film, which thematically emphasizes the internalized authority that policies queer people and their stories.
To begin, I’ll address why I’m talking about a film released twenty years ago and why the subject of Poison remains significant. During the stay-at-home order of 2020, I watched hundreds of movies. Throughout my viewings, I searched for queer movies to excite me. Few did. The majority of queer films I come across deliver the same conventional coming-out story concerned with assimilating gay people into the cookie-cutter lives of the same heterosexuals who humiliate, abuse, and reject the gay protagonists of these movies. In addition to these readily-available movies being about white gay men vying for the approval of heterosexual antagonists, I want to watch stories about lesbian, bi, and trans protagonists of color—literally, anything other than the same white, gay men on-screen.
Now, I don’t remember how I came across the term New Queer Cinema (NQC), a term coined by B. Ruby Rich in The Village Voice in 1992 to classify experimental queer films created by queer filmmakers. Nonetheless, my obsession to find and watch the films categorized under the NQC movement is passionate. When I came across Poison, recommended by E. Alex Jung’s Vulture article “A Beginner’s Guide to New Queer Cinema,” I found the start of my new obsession.
Shifting back into my film response, Poison isn’t concerned with being morally good, something that turned my friends off from finishing the film after I recommended it. The idea of a gay director of the 90s rejecting respectability to turn-out a film that captures an allegory of queer autonomy and rage, coupled with the sensuality of two men (rarely seen on screen, then and now), excites me far more than a film concerned with making a perfect, model gay citizen.
As a result of Poison being a triptych, intercut film, I will discuss each sequence as a stand-alone narrative in order to provide linear thoughts. First is “Hero,” the story of seven-year old Richie Beacon, who shoots and kills his abusive father, and then flys into the sky, disappearing. Interestingly, Richie Beacon is never depicted. Instead, the film is shot as a pseudo-documentary-five-o’clock-news-report, giving attention to Richie Beacon’s mother, teachers, nurses, neighbors, and classmates. The “Hero” sequence contains humor as well as an underlying disturbance as the testimonials given by Richie’s peers show Richie to be disconcertingly crude, like when asking a student to reenact the abuse he receives from his father. The interviewees express little empathy for Richie, resembling the home and school life of many LGBT+ youths. Testimonials blame Richie for his actions rather than interrogate the environment Richie is learning from. Outside of the bullying, Richie also faces mystification, which Richie’s mother displays, stating: “my child was an angel of judgement, and I sinned against the lord.” Although Richie isn’t outed as gay, the pattern of homophobic parents rationalizing their children’s queerness as divine punishment offers an allegory between Richie’s mystery and isolation with the stories of many LGBT+ youths.
Moreover, because the abuse from his peers and parents isolates Richie from this town, the hostility keeps him hostage. In addition to the hostile home, the interviewer collecting the townsfolk’s statements acts as a defense for the perfectly-presenting nuclear-home that Richie’s family projects, representative of a heterosexual-normative. The media assures that Richie Beacon is the anomaly of this town. No action is taken to stop the abuse in Richie’s home. “Hero” alludes to the hyper-vigilance that assumes and categorizes queerness in youths in order to target, abuse, and resent queer people. The fact that Richie defends himself against his biggest abuser, his father, allows “Hero” to posit a defense for queer youths. Regardless if the resolution of Richie’s story is the first scene of the film, Poison is pushing for an arc of retribution for queer kids, implying that Richie truly is his own fantastical “Hero.”
Considering that Poison’s “Hero” and “Horror” sequences are not exclusively about gay people, “Horror” also continues to function as a queer allegory. Specifically, “Horror” is an allegory for the AIDs epidemic that took-over LGBT+ communities across the globe throughout the early 80s and on. Set in black-and-white, “Horror” follows the transformation of Dr. Thomas Graves from rising scientist in hormonal studies to murderous leper. Although Graves carries the support of fellow-scientist Dr. Nancy Olsen, Graves collects resentment and rage as his transformation becomes more apparent. One of my favorite scenes from “Horror” is when Olsen takes Graves out for a walk to get hot-dogs. On their walk, neighbors, shot in a slanted camera-angle, show their disgust for Graves’s apparent mutation/sickness. When they arrive for hot-dogs to eat, people stare at the pair as ooze from Graves’s facial sores fall into his bun. Gross. The distinction in camera angles is significant because the neutral camera angle offers Graves and Olsen sympathy, while the dutch angle that presents the disapproving neighbors hints at the townspeople’s own moral waywardness. Before Graves’s mutation, Graves was a respected scientist, acclaimed in his field, but because of his appearance brought on by his disease, is now treated as disposable. Graves’s story shares resemblance with the excommunication that people living with AIDs face as they are rejected from work, their families and peers, as well as basic resources such as medical services.
Although the disapproval and disgust of the townspeople towards Graves is arguably permissible as he is a murderous leper who continues to spread his disease, consider the symbolism of his actions. Graves’s actions are emblematic of queer rage. For instance, he no longer cares about upholding respectability for a community that allows Olsen to die of this infectious mutation. Plus, this is also a community demanding police to execute him. Graves is subject to the internalized authority of his community as onlookers disapprove and shun him. The media tabloids assist by condemning him. The police function as the aggressors in enacting the community-approved violence set before him. Besides Olsen, Graves never receives care, or more importantly, the capacity to slowdown, reverse, or care for his ailments. Surveillance is constantly looming over a protagonist symbolic of queerness and disability. Poison’s “Horror”explicitly demonstrates how surveillance and police function to eradicate anyone who steps outside of the abled-bodied heteronormative standard, even as the lens is focused on an originally well-adjusted, heterosexual man. “Horror” implies that the confines of “normal” is limited, and any misstep results in being subject to police-state violence and excommunication.
In conjunction with the conversation of normalized police-state violence, Poison’s third sequence “Homo” presents narrator John Broom through three stages of his life (triptych within a triptych? Words.). “Homo” demonstrates the reach of state-sanctioned surveillance throughout Broom’s life: as a child, he’s in foster care; as a teen, he’s in a reformatory school; and as an adult, he’s in prison. Although “Homo” focuses on Broom’s obsessive attraction for Jack Bolton, the story also thematically studies gay attraction existing within the prison, an environment presented in media as extremely homophobic due to both the internalized authority of fellow prisoners and the state-sanctioned authority of prison guards. Beginning with Broom’s youth, Broom, adorned in a bridal veil, is married off to another young man from the same reformatory school. In the next scene, Broom narrates the connection between surveillance and the intimacy between men:
there, in the counterfeit world of men among men, I found my true family. At Baton, I was astounded by the discovery that each male had a male of his own. And, that the world of force and mammal beauty, loved in that way, within itself, from link to link.
The term “counterfeit” emphasizes the sub-society that is the reformatory school, which exists to separate youths from larger society while surveilling them, sharing practice and proximity to the prison industrial complex. Broom also participates in a “counterfeit” marriage with another man, representing the ceremonious symbolism of two men marrying one another outside the state’s recognition of marriage. Broom’s act and union of marriage is valid through the participation of both parties, and not by the sanction passed by the state, signifying the sub-society’s ability to exist and prosper outside of the state’s approval. The reformatory school reflects the microcosm of cities populated by queers within the larger framework of patriarchal-heteronormative society, which works to oppress and surveil queer people through the institutions of government, policing, media, and so on.
However, Broom’s openly gay life within a reformatory school of the early 1900s isn’t a “progressive“ representation of gay marriage. In fact, shifting into Broom’s adult life, the depiction of the prison’s framework influences Broom’s character and ideology. The prison claims ownership of prisoners, laboring inmates in their containment. Broom believes that “each male [has] a male of his own,” indicating ownership of another individual. Broom mimics his environment, participating in a hyper-vigilance of Bolton throughout “Homo,” like the role of a prison guard scrutinizing prisoners. Broom narrates that his imaginings of Bolton always come to violent ends, both foreshadow Broom’s raping of Bolton and Broom’s internalized authority that commands ownership of Bolton. Although much of “Homo” muddles the secrecy and sensuality between Broom and Bolton (despite the final scenes) as two men internalize their attraction for one another in order to survive the violence of homophobic inmates and prison wards, the behavior is calculated in showing who surveils who and who owns who. “Homo” reproduces the violence of the prison, while rendering a depiction of same-sex attraction, which shows how ideologies of authority and ownership are internalized from the prison industrial complex’s purpose to eradicate those who exist outside of the patriarchal, heteronormative.
In conclusion, Todd Haynes’s Poison thematically portrays the violence of surveillance as well as the reach of internalized authority that exists in order to categorize and punish queer communities. In “Hero,” a town gathers against Richie, rationalizing their rejection and abuse towards him after he disappears from the scene of where he shoots his father. The town refuses to accept their participation in their vigilance and hostility towards Richie that lead to his actions of defense against his father. In “Horror,” the reaction Dr. Graves receives from the townsfolk is an allegory to the rejection queer people experienced in the face of the AIDs epidemic. The townsfolk, coupled with the media and the police, unite to eradicate those who are sick due to Dr. Grave’s disease, punishing their inability to be able or normal. In “Homo,” Broom and Bolton internalize authority and ownership—seeing as both are raised in institutions working in tandem with the prison industrial complex, and later living in a prison—straining their ability to form a sensual, desirable relationship that either one of them may seek. Poison is a remarkable film I recommend watching for Todd Haynes’s capacity to tether three distinct, intercut stories that highlight a historical theme of state-sanctioned violence against queer people. Poison captures queer history through allegory and theme, highlighting the desperation of control, which government-supported institutions exercise in order to keep the fragile structures of patriarchy and heteronormativity intact and in power.