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George Mackay and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett start out badly and end badly, but the middle is actually good in "Femme."

Just a few weeks ago in this space, I was wondering where all the violent, unstable thrillers about gay men were. Right now, one is playing at AMC Parks at Arlington called Femme. It’s a good one, too. It has the structure of Promising Young Woman combined with the emotional and physical violence of Love Lies Bleeding. If only I could regularly manifest these things by wishing for them in my film reviews.

The story is set in East London, where Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) is a drag performer who goes by the name of Aphrodite. He’s still in his makeup and heels after one performance when he goes to a convenience store and gets harassed by a bunch of white thugs. When he responds in kind, they chase him down the street, beat him, strip him naked, and film the assault on their phones. Three months later, he tries to pull himself out of his haze of depression by going to a bathhouse, and who should he see but Preston (George MacKay), the thug who led the beating and held a knife to his throat? Preston’s easy to pick out, too, because he’s the one picking fights with the other gays. Jules follows him out and comes on to him, and Preston does not recognize him out of drag.

What to do with such a huge tactical advantage? Jules himself doesn’t know, and much of the suspense comes from Stewart-Jarrett’s performance conveying that. (You probably saw him playing a gay American in the Candyman remake.) It’s easy to see the white boy’s heavy tattoos, heavier East London accent, and job selling knockoff designer streetwear as the real thing, but then Preston takes Jules to a fancy restaurant and scrapes the bone marrow from his appetizer onto Jules’ plate in a manner suggesting he’s had it before. Jules sees that Preston is complicated and running with a crowd that would similarly beat him if they found out about his preferences, and yet Jules still starts watching internet porn not to get aroused but studying it to see how men film their sex partners without their knowledge. Hinting at his revenge plot to his fellow drag queens, he tells them why he stopped performing as Aphrodite: “It was like she was the real me and I was the performance. I feel like I let her down.”

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The filmmaking team of Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping adapt this from their similarly named short film, which does not appear to be online and stars Paapa Essiedu and Harris Dickinson. This does not feel like a padded-out short film, but rather like a quick and dirty revenge thriller at 99 minutes. Freeman and Ng are good at generating sweaty dread, both during that initial gay bashing and then during a scene when Preston’s friends unexpectedly drop by his flat while he and Jules are having sex and Jules decides to brazen it out with them. Giving the filmmakers a boost is MacKay, who makes a much different impression than he did starring in 1917 or even playing a shy gay teen in Pride. Preston is angry the way some gay men who are deep in the closet are, and he reintroduces his murderous side to Jules in harrowing fashion when he spots the smartphone in Jules’ hand during another sex scene.

I’m not sure the ending of this is quite as tragic as the filmmakers mean it to be — is there really a future to be had with a psychically messed-up case with a hair-trigger temper like Preston? Still, it is quite clever how Jules’ return to the stage inadvertently lays a humiliation on Preston that makes outing via revenge porn look like an act of mercy. The resulting fight between them is full of ugly moves and uglier feelings that lead both men to continue trading punches even after they fall off a loading dock. Femme is as brutal as Monkey Man, but instead of the scope and maximalism of the Indian film, it’s a thriller whose strengths are in its small scale, as the violence that brought two men together leads to more bloodshed and leaves both of them scarred for life.

Femme
Starring Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and George MacKay. Written and directed by Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping, based on their own short film. Rated R.

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