It's nearly impossible to give a film like Under Suspicion a simple thumbs up or thumbs down. Ninety percent of this thriller is absolutely terrific; but the 10 percent that fails is so troubling that it threatens to undermine all that is wonderful in the rest. (This problem may also explain why the film, with its 1999 copyright, is only now reaching theaters.)
The story takes place in what the press notes refer to as "a small Caribbean island"--despite the fact that within the film we are told that we are in San Juan, Puerto Rico (where the movie was shot). It's a festive night: Crowds are dancing in the streets, Mardi Gras-style, while the island's class elite is holding a fund-raising banquet. A key speaker at the fundraiser is Henry Hearst (Gene Hackman), a wealthy lawyer and pillar of the community. As he and Chantal (Monica Bellucci), his luscious and (significantly) much younger wife, make their way through the crowds, he is stopped by Police Captain Victor Benezet (Morgan Freeman), who says it's urgent that Hearst come to the station immediately to answer some questions about "what happened yesterday afternoon." Henry balks; he is, after all, late for the banquet, and he's expected to speak. But Victor, an old friend, insists that it's crucial and won't amount to more than 10 minutes.
He is, of course, lying--about which Henry suspects but can't really do anything. "What happened yesterday afternoon" is that Henry reported finding the body of a 12-year-old girl while on his daily jog. The child had been raped and murdered--the third such crime in recent months. Together with Felix Owens (Thomas Jane), a hotheaded young detective, Victor asks Henry to once again describe how he found the body. Unfortunately, both forensics and multiple witnesses contradict major details of Henry's story. Was the neighbor's dog running with him? Did the dog find the body first? Did Henry touch the corpse?
Based on the film Garde Vue by Claude Miller, Jean Herman, and Michel Audiard and the novel Brainwashed by John Wainwright.
As Henry is confronted by successive waves of challenge, he suddenly remembers more accurately...or tweaks his lies to fit the evidence--depending on how you look at it. Director Stephen Hopkins uses jump cuts to show visual details being revised in response to each inconsistency. Hopkins suggests that these are not real flashbacks at all; we are seeing Henry's visualizations, some of which may or may not be actual memories. What makes that even clearer is that, as Victor's hectoring voice intrudes on Henry's narration, the police chief physically appears within the images, as though he and Henry are time-traveling specters revisiting the scene together. It's a dazzling trick that has been used at least once (in Jaime Humberto Hermosillo's lovely, but little seen, 1998 comedy Esmeralda Comes by Night).
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Under Suspicion is a remake of French director Claude Miller's 1981 Garde à Vue, which won Cesar Awards for Best Actor, Supporting Actor, Editing, and Adapted Screenplay; it, in turn, was based on John Wainwright's novel Brainwashed. The original film has apparently never been available on video, so direct comparison is impossible; but it appears that Miller and his collaborators made significant changes from the book, and that screenwriters W. Peter Iliff and Tom Provost have, outside of a few updated references to the Internet, cleaved fairly closely to the French version. The movie even feels like a French film: Hackman looks as though he drifted in from some French thriller; he may not physically resemble predecessor Michel Serrault, but, watching him, one can--in the spirit of the story--reconstruct a likely vision of Serrault's performance in one's mind.
As the wife, Bellucci has the same sort of supernatural glow as Romy Schneider, who originated the part. Making the leap from Morgan Freeman to Lino Ventura is, for obvious ethnic reasons, a little tougher. But it's fun to imagine how different--yet probably equally effective--the film might have been with Freeman and Hackman exchanging roles.
Still, Suspicion works primarily because of--big surprise--their performances. After all, this is Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman squaring off in a room for two hours. What more do you need?
All of this makes Under Suspicion sound absolutely great, and, up till near the very end, it is. It is difficult to describe the misstep that so deeply mars the film as a whole without spoiling plot elements that should be kept under wraps. Suffice it to say that in the original book, author Wainwright is extremely explicit about why the central characters behave as they do; this is, in fact, the entire point of the book. In Hopkins' version, we are presented with hints toward an alternative explanation--an explanation that is more clever in terms of plot but far poorer in terms of theme. This is not an admirable ambiguity; it feels more like sloppy storytelling. Instead of leaving the theater going, "Aha! So that's what was going on!" we leave thinking "Huh? Is that what was going on? If so, what was all that other stuff about?" The murkiness is so irritating that it almost undoes the rest of an otherwise excellent movie.