1997, R, 102 min. Directed by Jonas Pate, Joshua Pate. Starring Tim Roth, Chris Penn, Michael Rooker, Renée Zellweger, Ellen Burstyn, Rosanna Arquette.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 17, 1998
Hooked up to a lie detector machine in a darkened police interrogation room is Wayland (Roth), the chief suspect in the grisly murder of a prostitute. (Her body was hacked in half and deposited in different parts of the city.) The two detectives, Braxton (Penn) and Kennesaw (Rooker), who are grilling Wayland admit they have “no evidence -- just a rich, weird spastic.” That kind of describes Deceiver; it's a tricky, stylish mind game in which tables are constantly turning. The only problem is that the shifting tables are lacking legs or any other visible means of support. In other words, the film is a funhouse glut of style and ideas but a laughable exercise in detective storytelling and thrilling psychological manipulation. Cast in the mold of The Usual Suspects, the film is an intricate policier drenched with visual and narrative flourishes. However, in Deceiver they amount to little more than mind games with the viewer. The plot is pointlessly twisted, and hammers the suspect with questions that might be more fruitfully answered through other means of investigation. But what a suspect -- a brilliant, rich, unemployed, alcoholic, epileptic, absinthe drinker. Enough adjectives? Wayland enjoys playing with the detectives' heads, and his strange behavior can be chalked up to any number of possible causes. Deceiver is essentially a three-man drama and Roth, Penn, and Rooker all deliver some of their highly dependable tough-guy stylings. The film's notable crew of women fare less well: Zellweger has a nice turn as the hacked-up hooker but her role is nevertheless a tired cliché; Burstyn is thoroughly eccentric in appearance and mannerisms as the shadowy underworld boss named Mook; and Arquette is once more underused as the sexually fractious wife of Kennesaw. While the plot bounces about in needless convolutions that create the illusion of things being more complicated than they are, the visual handiwork is a luau of expressionistic extremism. Deceiver presents an escalating onslaught of violently skewed angles, dark shadows, wild 360-degree camera moves (the camerawork is by Bill Butler of Deliverance and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), flashbacks/fantasies and split screen visions, and precious affections such as having every phone in the movie inexplicably be an old rotary-dial model. The Pate brothers made a small splash at Sundance a couple of years back with their debut film The Grave. With this sophomore effort, these writer-director twin brothers show that their bag of tricks is indeed impressively stocked. Now they need to learn how to operate the drawstring.