"There are lanes going east, and ones going west. And then there are the ones going straight to hell." So runs 14-year-old Howie Blitzer's description of the Long Island Expressway, the New York motorway that provides a backdrop and an acronymic title for L.I.E.Howie delivers it balanced on an overpass, with one foot hovering above the traffic below.
Since the expressway claimed his mom a few weeks back, Howie's lane isn't really going much of anywhere. His construction-magnate dad, Barry, has shacked up with another woman and is about to face a federal indictment. Howie (Paul Franklin Dano) spends his days skipping school, robbing neighborhood homes with his pals (the kind of sex-crazed trogs who might populate a Larry Clark film) and mulling his indistinct attraction to Gary (Billy Kay), a dreamy, dangerous dude who, unbeknown to Howie, also hustles johns on the roadside.
One of Gary's felonious larks leads Howie to the house of Big John Harrigan (Brian Cox), where the two swipe a pair of pistols. Big John's an ex-Marine, a middle-aged bear of a man who chews on life like a well-grilled steak. He's also a pederast, a fact Howie only discovers when Big John confronts him with the theft and raises the prospect of a relationship as repayment in kind.
Like Howie, director Michael Cuesta balances on a precarious overpass: He never sympathizes with Big John's horrifying proclivity, but he's also careful not to completely indict him, either. As Howie's life falls apart, Big John looms as both caring father figure and twisted monster. Cox's acting triumph is to sell both sides.
A nice scene splits the screen as Gary and Howie rifle through each other's houses, Gary looking to steal a wad of cash from Barry's bedroom drawer, Howie casing Gary's mattress to find the stolen guns. The two pause to examine themselves in the mirror. Throughout the film, Dano's Howie, with his flipped-up 'do, conveys both youthful attitude and vulnerability.
Cuesta likes to stretch out his shots, then shatter them with unexpected interruptions, like a pair of kids on bicycles who squirt a daydreaming Howie with water pistols. That explains (but doesn't excuse) L.I.E.'s jarring conclusion, a left-field stunner that knocks the film out of its lane like a pedestrian blindsided by a runaway semi. It's a messy ending to an otherwise disturbingly thoughtful film.