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BUFF Review: Porn thriller ‘Mope’ fails the real-life figures at its core

Based on the real murder of porn star Tom Dong, director Lucas Heyne can't find the right tone for his first film

Mope
BUFF
 

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Mope is the true story of a brutal murder lost in a film that believes it’s about pornography. And in that misguided approach to its source material, this feature debut by director Lucas Heyne does a disservice to the audience, the victims, and frankly the porn industry itself.

The film tells the story of Stephen Clancy Hill (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), a mentally ill man obsessed with porn and desperate to break into the industry as a performer under his stage name Steve Driver. While taking a low-paid group gig, Steve, who is black, befriends Tom Dong (Kelly Sry) — the stage name of a Chinese immigrant who left his six-figure IT job to likewise pursue his dream of being an A-list adult performer. Though neither man is particularly talented (nor do they have, uh, a big screen presence), the duo bill themselves as the “Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker of porn” and find a home at the studio of Z-grade fetish film production house Ultima DVD. Under the direction of their cynical boss Eric (Brian Huskey), they live their dream by performing humiliation scenes involving ball busting, waterworks, faux castration, and cuckoldry.

 
 

In the world of porn, Steve and Tom are considered “mopes” — lonesome men who “mope” around porn studios in the hopes of being drafted for the occasional scene (for which the pay ranges between $50 and $75, less than half the cost of the mandatory HIV test they’re required by law to take before filming). By definition, mopes are generally unaware of their bottom-rank, and in one early scene Steve compares the term to a racial slur. In his deluded world, Steve is cocksure he and Tom will be superstars on the caliber of Ron Jeremy or John C. Holmes.

Frustrated with his lack of respect, Steve increasingly lashes out behind the scenes and on camera invents strange gimmicks like wearing Halloween prop gloves he excitedly dubs “Monster Hands.” He refuses to shower and becomes a liability for Ultima’s teetering business. In the film’s climax, Eric makes the call to fire him. Refusing to hear the news, Steve enters an unhinged fugue state where he takes a prop samurai sword and kills Tom (real name Howard Wong) before taking his own life during an encounter with the police.

Though the film goes to great lengths to underline his pathetic existence, Steve’s life was even more tragic than Mope’s mostly comedic tone lets on. In real life he was born to a black mother and white father who later divorced, and was tormented by bullies while being split between two homes. In high school he dreamed of joining the Air Force, but was ineligible due to poor eyesight and prior surgeries. In college he was arrested after threatening to kill an instructor for refusing to give him more time on a test, and was subsequently placed under house arrest and diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder. During this period he became obsessed with porn, racking up more than $20,000 in credit card debt by purchasing thousands of videos and studying them day and night. Eventually, against his family’s wishes, he moved to Los Angeles with dreams of stardom, leading to the chain of events that would end his and Tom’s lives.

 
 

But these aren’t facts you’ll learn in Mope. This vital exposition came from Michael Albo’s excellent 2011 overview of the murder in the pages of LA Weekly. Because Heyne plays the climactic murder like a plot twist, and instead of probing the state of Steve’s mental illness, the film looks at this world with bemused interest and quite often contempt for its subjects. Even the music choices, such as mid-film montage set to Devo’s “Mongoloid,” feels like sneering mockery of its very real and very dead protagonist. Heyne is interested in humiliation — taking plenty of time to indulge in scenes of bad sex, bodily fluids, and naked debasement — but he gives little thought to a thesis.

Mope is transgressive for the sake of being transgressive, and yet seems afraid of showing a penis. It’s a true crime dramatization, yet it’s too caught up in the tabloid headline to seek pathos. It’s allegedly a deep dive into the scene of fetish porn filmmakers, yet it’s almost blindsided by the fact that it’s a profit-driven business where scat and gangbangs are just a mundane part of the day-to-day.

I’m not sure if there was any way to save Steve Hill and Howard Wong from their fate, but certainly they deserve more than mockery.