Oliver Twist created quite a stir when Charles Dickens set it loose upon the English-reading public back in 1836. Some felt that the book, with its nightmarish vision of a world where many were forced to beg, borrow and steal to survive, wasn't suitable for children. Today, Fagin and his den of thieves seem quaint, even lovable, thanks to such cinematic adaptations as 1968's Oliver!, which gave Victorian London's grimy backstreets the ol' song-and-dance treatment. And maybe that's why writer-director Jacob Tierney has chosen to update Dickens' classic to the sexual underworld of contemporary Toronto. He wanted to restore some of the shock value. He may also have wanted to queer a text that never quite gets around to mentioning that Fagin's a pederast. Twist reimagines Oliver Twist as a story about male prostitutes who are so strung out on heroin they can't see what a trap they've fallen into. None of them seem very interested in another bowl of gruel.
Depressing almost to a fault, the movie sets us down in a wintry wasteland of diners and doughnut shops, the streets and stores strangely unpopulated except for the hustlers, their pimps and their johns. Oliver (Joshua Close) is the new kid in town - blond, bland, with skin that's virginally pale. And Dodge (Nick Stahl) is the old kid in town - a junkie who, asked whether he hustles so as to be able to do drugs, says he does drugs so as to be able to hustle. As in the novel, Oliver's a holy innocent whom others take advantage of. It's Dodge that the movie's built around; and Stahl, who gives such an interior performance that you wish he'd send a little more our way, nevertheless holds the screen, allowing us to follow him into the gutter and down the drain. Twist lacks the poetry that Gus Van Sant brought to similar milieus in Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, but there's definitely something there - a starkly disturbing vision of hell as lit by a single bare bulb.