Thanks to The Grave, acclaimed at the '96 Sundance Film Festival, and Hollywood's need to produce new indie stars, Josh and Jonas Pate have been anointed by some as the new Coen brothers. What the Pates share with the Minnesota natives behind Fargo and Barton Fink is a good eye for casting and an interest in arty violence and the quirks of regionalism. But with Deceiver, they've failed, for the most part, to make a movie as riveting as even the Coens' slightest efforts. It's full of tension and untapped potential.
In some ways, it's like a low-key, rep-company Reservoir Dogs reunion, resurrecting Chris Penn and Tim Roth and putting them in small rooms in difficult circumstances. The menacing performances, Beckett-like enclosures, and black-and-white inter-titles all recall the work of that most famous former video-store clerk.
We're in Charleston, a city of which we're offered few glimpses. The story begins immediately and sets up the film's three key players. Most central is Roth's James Walter Wayland, an Ivy League simp with a name you expect to be followed by Roman numerals. Wayland is the bad scion of a good family--the upstanding, cotillion-giving type--and a Princeton grad with a genius IQ. Thanks to a phone number found in the pocket of a slain hooker (Renee Zellweger), he's called in for a nearly interminable lie-detector test for murder. We gradually find out that Roth's character is also a serious epileptic.
Wayland's interrogators are less tony, and he antagonizes them about their humble origins. Chris Penn plays Braxton, a fat, sunburned Midwestern yob who's spent most of his career as a security guard at Wal-Mart. But we never get to know much more than this. There's something condescending in the filmmakers' treatment of Braxton--they make it seems that he's just as shallow and dumb as Wayland thinks.
Kennesaw (Michael Rooker) is no more sympathetic than Penn's Braxton--in fact, he suggests none of the good nature that Braxton does--but his character has edge, war stories, and secrets. He's a sort of redneck-made-good, a Carolina boy who realizes his guts, intellectual sharpness, and magnetism could take him far from the life of a back-country electrician's son. You can see the drive, almost manic, in his eyes.
The film backs up and then moves forward to show us what ensues after endless rounds of lie-detector tests, which lead back to the prostitute's murder.
The key to the movie, though--the reason it doesn't quite work, and the reason it could have--is Roth's performance, and his character, Wayland. The movie depends on the performance's being better than it is, and the character's being either more likable or more charismatically bad.
Roth can be electric and weirdly unpredictable, as his roles in Vincent and Theo (playing van Gogh), Rob Roy, Reservoir Dogs, and Pulp Fiction have shown. He's got the tortured self-righteousness of a British Angry Young Man and the insecurity of a Taxi Driver-era De Niro. But he doesn't have enough fun with his role here.
Part of the problem with Roth's Wayland is that he's the member of a subculture for which Americans, especially moviegoing Americans, have little sympathy. Inherited wealth--both in our nation's collective unconscious and in the cinema that serves as its reflection--is a kind of original sin. It's the ghost of the Old World we cast off. Wayland's money, intelligence, and epilepsy all give us reason to consider him, as Kennesaw calls him, "just a rich, weird spastic." And he's not enough of a bad boy to really become a colorful anti-hero.
This all said, Roth does offer a few salient details in his performance; his body language throughout is that of an unwell man who could snap at any moment, and when he torments Braxton about his lack of education, he pronounces the t in "community college" deliciously, with a kind of New England or Oxbridge hardness.
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The second problem is the direction. The Coen Brothers infuse every movie with a distinct and memorable visual strategy--the hat that blows through the woods in Miller's Crossing; the camera, mad with odd angles and wild panning shots, that recreates the style of a cartoon in Raising Arizona; the endless deserts of white snow streaked with blood in Fargo.
But the Pates give us no clear cinematic vision. The camera circles artfully when things go awry; the druggy demimonde where Roth goes to buy absinthe isn't bad, but the close-ups of squinty eyes or the tips of burning cigarettes, the flashbacks full of shadows, are all things we've seen before. Even when Kennesaw deliberately and methodically draws the blinds of the confession room, it has neither the visual nor psychological impact it should.
It's not that Deceiver is without tension; in fact, the film manages to build drama and uncertainty from beginning to end, thanks to both Roth's volatility and the movie's smart, tight plotting. But it doesn't quite catch fire.
Directed and written by Jonas and Joshua Pate. Starring Tim Roth, Chris Penn, Michael Rooker, and Renee Zellweger. Opens Friday.