Stars: ** 1/2
Rating: R for language, violence
Run Time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Supremely stylish and uncomfortably threatening, this Shakespearean-based, teens-on-the-edge composition is sure to find a core audience among late adolescent thrill seekers.
Colorado’s Columbine incident killed the originally targeted release date of “O”. In light of the real-life high school murders, the film’s subject matter was considered too sensitive. Art imitates life at Charleston’s swanky Palmetto Grove Academy, where Hugo Goulding (Josh Hartnett), Desi Brable (Julia Stiles) and Odin James (Mekhi Phifer) roam the hallways with the smooth confidence of seniority and popularity. Odin and Hugo are basketball teammates, on the road to the State Championship under the tutelage of coach Duke Goulding (Martin Sheen). Desi and Odin are the “It” campus couple – swaddled in a deep, pure love and facing the golden glow of limitless potential.
But all is not a bed of roses in this mythical, contemporary South. Hugo, accustomed to the security of the world as his oyster, desires Desi. Forced to take a backseat to the on-court heroics of Odin, and bitterly envious of his coach dad’s adoration of his star player, Hugo weaves a vicious master plan to turn Desi against her courtly lover. (Iago’s slanderous poisons?) Evil seeds of doubt combined with an ugly web of destructive lies consign three very bright futures to a turbulent vortex of pain and regret.
Are we turned Turks? Nefarious teens isn’t a fresh concept, but director Tim Blake Nelson and writer Brad Kaaya have nearly managed to craft a taut, timeless story of treachery and tragedy that closely mirrors Shakespeare’s classic tale of deceit. I said nearly. Unfortunately, “O” drips with an imagery that threatens to waterlog the evil subtleties of Hugo’s betrayal. Stylish develops into hip saturation that stops just shy of dramatic visual manipulation.
In an amusing twist of anti-typecasting, Hartnett does the wicked psychotic whose scheming ways escalate into irrevocable tragedy. Keep in mind that this was filmed before Hartnett had achieved Cinema Golden Boy status – nonetheless, it’s wickedly stimulating . Stiles is her typical charming but aloof self, but Phifer really excels as the dark boy from the ‘hood made good. Murder, betrayal, and lust, all before the tender age of 18. Even so my bloody thoughts, indeed.