4 out of 5 stars

Let's set the stage: It's nearly 20 years ago, when the Utah/U.S. Film Festival---only recently rechristened Sundance---was well under way, and Todd Haynes's seething 1991 drama jockeyed alongside the likes of Richard Linklater's Slacker and Hal Hartley's Trust. More than anything, Poison represents a moment just before independent cinema became "indie": skinny-tied, quipstery and cute. Soft-spoken Haynes, already a cult figure for his illegal Barbie-doll fantasia Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, filled his movie with Genet quotes (his three interwoven tales are all inspired, to a degree, by the radical poet's writing) and a prickly sense of sexual transgression. The film would go on to a controversial theatrical release, hobbled by an NC-17 rating---Haynes wore it unapologetically---and castigation by the religious right. He had arrived.

Today, the tales are invigorating: a little rough, but predictive of Haynes's artistic arc for the next decade (a span in which he offered more to the American edge than any other director). "Hero," shot documentary-style, introduces us to a sympathetic housewife (Meeks), pinned in impossible circumstances, a sister to Julianne Moore's sufferer in Far from Heaven (2002). "Horror," Poison's most fun segment, re-creates the feel of a '50s science-run-amok thriller, and thrums with the nightmarish anxiety of Haynes's 1995 masterpiece, Safe. And "Homo" creates a near-gorgeous dreamworld of a prison yard, into which rude abusers strut and spit; it's very close to the glam preening of Velvet Goldmine (1998).

Hopefully, a young person would see Poison today, get ruffled by it and know that it represented a battle worth fighting. So much more than a signpost of New Queer Cinema, the movie is an invitation to be bold, to be artistic, to be defiant.

See also Poison's Todd Haynes

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By: Joshua Rothkopf


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