*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Keith Gordon

With John Glover, Ilan Mitchell-Smith, and Wally Ward.

What would your prognosis be for the following movie? It’s an adaptation of a novel that has attracted a substantial cult of adolescent readers, written and directed by a young actor best known for playing nerds in Christine and Dressed to Kill, produced, on a shoestring, by a lawyer-agent (who happens to be married to Sally Kellerman), and featuring a company of little-known artists both before and behind the camera. When completed, this production was exhibited theatrically only in Los Angeles and just a few weeks ahead of its scheduled release on videocassette.

By now, I suspect you have reached the same conclusion I did when I heard about The Chocolate War. I approached a screening with the enthusiasm I usually bring to a dentist’s office, only to discover, once again, that movies are even harder to handicap than horses. The Chocolate War, Keith Gordon’s directorial debut, based on Robert Cormier’s novel, is an intriguing, surprisingly forceful picture. Despite obvious weaknesses–several clumsily handled dream sequences, a few sluggish patches, moments when the nickel-and-dime production values are too evident–The Chocolate War is strong stuff, a serious, sober, uncompromising movie.

Gordon’s film is densely plotted–the press-kit synopsis consumes six pages–and, unlike the majority of current Hollywood “high concept” projects, it’s concerned with complex moral issues. The setting is Saint Trinity, a Catholic boys’ prep school. (The school’s location is unspecified, but the topography and grayish light of Seattle are unmistakable.) Jerry Renault, a freshman whose mother has recently succumbed to cancer, is selected for a special “assignment” by Archie, a sadistic upperclassman and official of the Vigils, a student secret society that terrorizes the school.

Brother Leon, an obsessive, dictatorial teacher, is in charge of Saint Trinity’s annual chocolate sale. To bolster the school’s precarious finances, as well as his chances of being named headmaster, Leon decides that each of the school’s 400 students will be required to sell twice as many boxes of candy as the previous year, at twice the cost. At first, Leon uses blackmail to make Archie agree to have the Vigils support the sale. But when club members booby-trap another teacher’s classroom, and Leon chastises Archie for the prank, Archie decides to sabotage the chocolate sale. He “assigns” Jerry to refuse, without explanation, to sell his quota of 50 boxes of candy for the next ten days.

The initial chocolate sales are slow, and Leon blames Jerry’s refusal to participate as the reason for the low motivation of the other students. He forces one of his charges to confess that the Vigils are behind Jerry’s rebellion, and feels confident that sales will improve once the “assignment” has ended. When Jerry, for reasons of his own, continues to refuse to participate after the assignment is over–a gesture that makes him appear somewhat heroic in the eyes of his classmates–Leon insists that the Vigils support the sale and turn against Jerry, or the club will be disbanded.

Jerry’s friend Goober tries to persuade him to “play the game,” but Jerry staunchly refuses. The Vigils also “assign” him to accept his quota of candy, and threaten punishment if he disobeys. But Jerry persists in his rebellion despite harassment from the Vigils; rumors are spread about his sexuality, his locker is smeared with shit, and he is roughed up on his way home by Emile, a vicious classmate. To save face for the Vigils, Archie arranges a revenge boxing match between Jerry and Emile, selling raffle tickets to subsidize Jerry’s unsold chocolates. At the end of the fight, everybody loses–Jerry, Archie, Leon, and the student body.

The Chocolate War is the most unflinching study of authoritarianism and the shifting structures of power since Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), which explored the subject in a hermetic, erotic context. In the film’s press notes, director Gordon intelligently articulates his concerns: “The point of the film is that the system triumphs. One thing systems are very good at, whether it’s a communist system or a capitalist system or a religious system, is their amazing ability to weed out the extremes, both the weakest and the strongest. That means weeding out the crazies and the artists and the toughs and the dreamers–the Jerrys and the Archies among us. It doesn’t matter whether you’re on the side of the devils or the angels. You just get ripped out.”

Gordon’s extensive screen and stage acting background has helped him draw convincing performances from his largely inexperienced cast. Ilan Mitchell-Smith is quietly intense as Jerry; his authority grows as the character’s self-awareness increases. And with his Hitler haircut and Buckleyesque sneer, Wally Ward provides a suggestive emotional subtext for Archie’s unexplained misanthropy. Buck-toothed Doug Hutchinson is splendid as Obie, Archie’s goonish underling. Jenny Wright has two telling scenes as a leather-clad street girl who challenges Jerry’s conscience. Bud Cort, of Harold and Maude, has a droll cameo as long-haired Brother Jacques, the victim of a Vigils prank.

The film’s expressive centerpiece is John Glover’s juicily flamboyant turn as Brother Leon. An accomplished stage actor whose screen performances have ranged from the psychopathic pornographer-killer of 52 Pickup to a sympathetic AIDS patient in the TV movie An Early Frost, Glover energetically projects Leon’s intelligence, viciousness, and insecurity. With his long face, combed-back hair, pursed lips, and terrifying smile, he’s like an updated and intensified version of the classic movie villain Dan Duryea. From his first scene–when he creepily slithers around the classroom brandishing a pointer, then unjustly terrorizes a model student to teach his pupils a lesson about the nature of totalitarianism–Glover is mesmerizing.

The Chocolate War’s production values–Tom Richmond’s tenebrous camera work, David Ensley’s art direction, and Elizabeth Kaye’s costumes–are more than adequate, given the severe budgetary restraints. The film’s content and performances are so potent, one hardly misses the gloss of more commercial yet less substantial pictures. The sound track makes ominously effective use of contemporary recordings by Yaz, Scott Cossu, Peter Gabriel, Joan Armatrading, and Kate Bush. In his first effort as a director, Gordon shows great promise, only losing his tight grip on the story in several brief, redundant dream sequences, which should have been snipped from the final cut. When a movie is as insistently allegorical as this one, symbolic shots of Jerry’s dead mother sitting in silent judgment tend to overemphasize the director’s already clear-cut moral perspective.

Although sometimes heavy-handed and stylistically a bit ragged at the edges, The Chocolate War poses some thorny questions about the nature of authority and refuses to cop out by offering viewers easy, reassuring answers. The film is especially insightful about the way power structures–social, religious, political–reinforce one another, despite conflicting values and goals, to squelch individualism.