There’s hardly a moment in Keep the Lights On when the film’s central couple isn’t bordering on collapse. After their first sexual encounter, a tryst arranged over a phone-sex line, closeted lawyer Paul (Zachary Booth) promptly informs documentarian Erik (Thure Lindhardt) not to get his hopes up for a second go-round. But Erik must view the dismissal as a challenge, because he soon returns to Paul’s place for a more emotional engagement.
Ira Sachs’ intimate drama, an episodic exploration of the ensuing 10-year relationship between the two, finds its provenance in those uncertain moments. As the movie hops from one precarious situation to the next, a hint of “what if?” underlying each scene makes Keep the Lights On more of a post-mortem than a love story. The sense (and it’s a small one) that the couple’s lives could have taken such different turns adds poignancy to their struggles. If only Paul’s crack use hadn’t spiraled into addiction, or Erik’s need to be needed hadn’t been so crippling, maybe things wouldn’t have been so rocky.
Despite its reflective threads, Keep the Lights On wisely refrains from sentimentality. By only offering glimpses of Paul and Erik’s connection, both characters remain inscrutable, making the audience’s relationship to them distant rather than emotional. Beautifully gritty shots lend the movie an important authenticity, grounding viewers in on-screen action rather than wistful nostalgia. Amid such understated storytelling, the movie’s most evocative moments come during well-crafted sex scenes — the only occasions when Paul and Erik seem as honest as the raw movie that depicts them.