Will King Cobra Be The Proverbial Good Gay Porn Movie America Needs?

James Franco is going to try really hard.

Movies about the porn industry, made within and adjunct to the non-pornographic film industry, always have to be taken with a grain of salt. This is to say, clutching pearls about sleazy producers, exploitation of performers, and criminal behavior, when done by non-porn movies when regarding the porn industry, is a bit rich, as all of these things are endemic to film industries, not pornography. Good people make films of all sorts in good faith, just as not-so-good people make films as an excuse to exert power over vulnerable people.

With the understanding established that not every tale of illicit behavior is a fractal of the industry or form as a whole, there are stories within the world of pornography that make for compelling drama. One such is the tale recounted in the subtly titled book Cobra Killer: Gay Porn Murder. The porn actor who went by the name Brent Corrigan was introduced to the industry by an older boyfriend when he was still underage, and went on – once he turned 18 – to a brief and quite popular career in gay porn. There ensued a conflict over whose gay porn films Corrigan would exclusively headline, which resulted in a murder. Which resulted in the book, and now writer-director Justin Kelly’s movie King Cobra, starring Christian Slater and James Franco as the parties competing over the young star.

Shifting gears briefly, this is another entry in the ongoing performance art project “’James Franco,’ by James Franco,” by James Franco, featuring two of his frequent themes, those being porn and queerness. To be clear, what he does with his life underneath the Moebius strips of layered irony is his own business and he owes no one any explanations. His work, though, features a very weird tapdance along a perceived line demarcating, with little to no nuance, complete straightness and complete gayness. The “Franco” character, within the work, and the “’Franco’” character of the actor playing the role, are emphatically “straight” men playing “gay” and either wondering what it all means or holding for laughs. There is not much water remaining in this particular well. If he can, against the odds, gather a bucketful, good on him.

Christian Slater, in the midst of a quiet career renaissance enabled largely by the Emmy-winning series Mr. Robot, carries no such meta baggage. In the very small, out-of-context samples afforded in King Cobra’s trailer, there is a distinct, extremely uncomfortable quaver in Slater’s vocal delivery. There are two possibilities here, neither of which can be determined accurate until seeing the movie – because trailers are not movies – which are: Slater is evoking his character’s conflicted sexuality, or Slater as an actor is sufficiently discomfited by the material he’s playing that he’s unable to remain in character. One obviously hopes, if indeed one hopes for all movies to be good, that the former is the case.

The only reason I mention the possibility of straight discomfort at all things gay is because it’s a tendency that runs parallel to outsider anxiety about pornography. Sexuality by definition is not a rational or rationally controllable thing. (It’s possible to restrain sexual impulses, but not eradicate them, which is to say, you cannot pray away the gay.) The idea that other people might be fucking in a different way, with different tools and apparatus, can be scary. For proof, look no further than the tizzy into which straight people are sent by the concept of queerness and/or the existence of pornography.

All of this is to say: I am not operating from any position yet where an assessment of King Cobra as a thing is possible. The above and this conclusion are tangential. What I hope, though, is that it keeps its head, as a piece of cinema, about queerness, and about pornography. The porn industry has its issues – and holy shit, does it ever – but it’s not exceptional in that regard. (If you ever want to not blink for a month, talk to someone in non-pornographic film about the shit that goes on behind closed doors.) And while it’s a minor red flag that the film’s main character has disavowed the movie as counterfactual, it may still be a good movie. As someone who hopes for movies to be good, I obviously hope King Cobra is.

Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all