As part of my movie watching for TGGeeks I’ve decided to take a look at movies for the LGBTQ community that have probably flown under most people’s radar, and this time I’m going to examine the second of the Donald Strachey gay detective movies, Shock to the System.
Donald Strachey is a private investigator, with something of a past that he likes to keep hidden. One thing that he doesn’t hide is that he’s openly gay, and living in Albany NY allows him the right to marry his longtime partner, Timmy Callahan, who is a legislative aide to New York State Senator Glassman. Their marriage is common knowledge in the LGBTQ community, as is the fact that Donald is the first gay P.I. compliments of an article that was done on him in The Advocate. Donald is also just as much of a wannabe Colombo as Timmy is a poster boy for Brooks Brothers.
Here we see Donald walking in a dark alley at night when he’s approached by a young man named Paul Hale who wants to hire him to find someone. Paul is nervous, almost paranoid, and when a van turns the corner and almost runs the both of them down Paul strangely disappears. Later, while at a political event for the LGBTQ community Donald gets a phone call regarding the death of someone. When he arrives at the scene he discovers that the deceased is Paul Hale, only his death looks like a stroke brought about by taking a mixture of Xanax with Bourbon. It looks like suicide, but not everyone is buying it, least of all his mother (played with standard soap-opera flair by Morgan Fairchild) who is on the rampage claiming that Paul was murdered. When it was suggested that Paul was gay his mother once again goes on the rampage claiming that her son was not only straight, but also that he had been “cured” after attending a clinic headed by a Dr. Cornell of the Phoenix Foundation for a Better Life. This causes Donald to go undercover as a confused gay man seeking to be cured so that he can have a better future. Once inside he starts to discover that this is more than about whom Paul wanted to have found. Paul, along with a classmate at the University he’s attending, has discovered a small scandal while attending the sessions at Dr. Cornell’s clinic. What did Paul uncover? How did he learn about it, and who would have anything to gain by keeping it quiet?
As with the first film, Third Man Out, what makes this movie resonate so much is how it impacts the lives of both Donald and Timmy. Thus far that has been the hallmark of these movies, as each mystery becomes personal due to the details behind the crime. As Donald goes undercover he utilizes part of his own past to give his masquerade some authenticity where we learn more about his military career, and we see how that starts to erode away at Donald’s veneer, even to the point of causing a rift between himself and Timmy. We also need to remember that from the very first movie Donald is a man with a past that he likes to keep secret. However he’s not only keeping it a secret from everyone around him, he’s also been keeping it a secret from himself. When the matter of choices becomes too much to handle Donald finally breaks down and shares this dark secret with Timmy. Here again is where the magic of both Chad Allen (as Donald Strachey) and Sebastian Spence (as Timmy Callahan) come in to play. Mysteries such as these do require some suspension of disbelief. They have to be masterfully told in order for them to be entertaining to watch, and the best way to do that is by having a powerful cast, and again Allen and Spence don’t hold anything back. As Donald’s resolve to keep this dark secret breaks down we learn of a tragic past during his time in the military when Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was in effect. In a moment of masterful acting we see Donald’s emotional barriers erode bit by bit until he has a moment of brutal and heartbreaking honesty. Allen never betrays too much too quickly. He paces this reveal with all of the perfect beats, from the tone in his voice to the expression on his face, that it felt absolutely real. Then there is Spence. I don’t envy him having to act opposite what I can only regard as a tour-de-force performance by Allen, but Spence provides some of the most subtle and beautiful acting as he begins to learn of what happened to Donald. I was no longer watching some of the best acting ever between Allen and Spence. I was now in a room with Donald and his husband Timmy as Donald poured his heart out regarding a burden that he had been carrying inside of him for years. It was real for me. I felt it, and I felt as if my own heart was breaking for Donald. I also felt incredible empathy for Timmy, as he’s now learning of this horrible tragedy that his husband has been carrying inside of him, and now he has to provide comfort to the man he loves. Because of this scene Shock to the System transcended from just being a form of entertainment. I was now pulled in and it became alive. I was now a witness to an emotionally intimate, and extremely vulnerable moment between these two men.
As for the mystery, it wasn’t as convoluted as the Agatha Christie-like story from Third Man Out. This one was a bit more linear, meaning I was actually able to figure out who the culprit was! Granted I completely missed out on the motive for why Paul was murdered, but I did have some form of satisfaction in guessing this one character’s guilt within minutes of being introduced in the movie.
Shock to the System did what some of the best forms of art are capable of doing. It changed me. I finished watching this movie feeling differently than when I did at the beginning, and for something of an independent production to achieve this was probably the greatest surprise I could have ever hoped for. This is a movie that doesn’t necessarily paint the Phoenix Foundation for a Better Life as the bad guy. Far from it, instead they were almost looked at sympathetically. While their underlying cause for their mission is still looked on by most as rubbish, their methodology was far more passive and peaceful, as opposed to the more evangelical approach that other organizations have used (see Boy Erased). Doing this helped to add even more depth and layers to the mystery surrounding Paul’s death, as well as adding elements of confusion to Donald as he’s forced to face his own past.
Through this, and through the brilliant screenwriting Richard Stevenson and direction of Ron Oliver, Shock to the System is a movie that will not only enthrall you with its mystery and players, but will leave you emotionally moved.