I’m not sure if SUTURE (1993) counts as a neo-noir, but it seems a little related to other ’90s indie crime movies like RED ROCK WEST and THE UNDERNEATH and stuff. The plot definitely seems like something out of an old crime novel. Clay (Dennis Haysbert, NAVY SEALS, ABSOLUTE POWER, The Unit, SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR) is a guy from rural California who has come to visit his half brother Vincent (Michael Harris, ZAPPED AGAIN!, SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE III, MR. STITCH) in Phoenix. They’d never met until recently, at their father’s funeral, when they were surprised to find out how uncannily they resemble each other.
Vincent is very rich, lives in a fancy modern house with art and slicks his hair back and generally reminds you of AMERICAN PSYCHO. Clay keeps worrying that Vincent will think he wants money from him, which he doesn’t. In fact, it’s Vincent who wants something from Clay, and it’s much more than money. He gets Clay to put on his clothes and drive his car and then blows him up, to fake his own death. Terrible hospitality from this fuckin guy, jesus christ.
Clay survives, though. His face is messed up and he doesn’t remember who he is, but everybody assumes he’s Vincent and tells him about “his” life, including that he’s a suspect in his father’s death.
So it’s a mystery about memory and identity. As he recovers in the hospital, Vincent’s mother tells Clay-who-she-thinks-is-Vincent what he’s like: a champion sharpshooter, a rich guy, socially awkward, etc. If he doesn’t know that stuff is incorrect, will it become correct? He strikes up a relationship with his plastic surgeon (Mel Harris, K-9, RAISING CAIN, also a TV show called Raising Caines, which is weird) and is interviewed by a psychiatrist (Sab Shimono, BLIND DATE, THE SHADOW, WATERWORLD, THE BIG HIT, SOUTHLAND TALES) trying to decode his dreams to find clues to his past.
The dream and hypnosis sequences don’t feel authentic, but they’re cool and I like how the odd details in them become sort of a puzzle to figure out. Also I like how half way through the movie I noticed that the enormous Rorschach blot on the doctor’s wall looks like Clay with his bandages on.
Meanwhile, a Lieutenant Weismann follows Clay around and tries to get a witness (Fran Ryan, STRAIGHT TIME, QUIET COOL) to his father’s death to point him out in a lineup. And that’s crazy because Weismann is played by David Graf, which is fuckin Tackleberry from POLICE ACADEMY. You don’t want him after you. He’s so into guns!
This is making me imagine a world where more of the POLICE ACADEMY actors popped up in hip indie movies to see if they could have a second act. But since the last one, MISSION TO MOSCOW, came out in ’94 – after this one, and less than two months before PULP FICTION – I guess it was too early for us to start seeing them in a different light. At least Bobcat Goldthwait got to be reborn as a director, and Leslie Easterbrook was really good in THE DEVIL’S REJECTS.
Anyway it’s a race to see whether Clay can remember that he’s not Vincent before the police bust him as if he is Vincent.
The black and white photography (director of photography: Greg Gardiner, BIKER BOYZ) looks straight-up beautiful on Arrow’s blu-ray. Since the movie takes place mostly in Arizona during the day it’s more white than black. And the spare scenery is pretty cool looking. Seeing it brought on my itch to travel, just to hang out in unfamiliar places.
There’s a sort of timelessness to it that I like. The story seems to come from another era, and I remembered the movie came out in the ’90s, but I couldn’t tell from watching how far into them. There’s a nice musical choice that could be from any of the last few decades: Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” goes into a cover of it by Tom Jones.
Oh yeah, there’s a pretty big thing I forgot to mention. Instead of casting twins or one actor in a dual role, they got Haysbert and Harris. Harris is a white guy who looks nothing like Haysbert. I suppose it’s this odd gimmick alone that made me hesitate to call it a neo-noir, because it makes it seem like the primary focus is on whatever this unorthodox choice says more than the crime thriller story that it could potentially draw your attention away from.
Haysbert is a very compelling leading everyman, Harris is effectively slimy. Since everyone treats Clay as a white man the whole time and all the other characters are white there is never any explicit point made about race. And yet it’s impossible not to wonder what this casting choice says, or is meant to say. It could say that race is irrelevant, a social construction, since Clay can become anyone when he doesn’t remember his past, which seems to have been a white man’s past anyway. But even in this raceless world, here is the only black man around being blamed for a crime he didn’t commit! He lives most of his life as a poor man and then he’s only getting to live as a rich man in an attempt to make him take the fall for his white brother’s sins.
There’s also a very strange moment when the doctor is caressing Clay’s face and describing his facial features and what they say about him according to ancient pseudo-sciences she’s studied. But she’s describing a thin nose, thin lips, white guy features that he doesn’t have. And he gives her an “aw schucks” smile. Maybe it’s a way of attacking Eurocentric standards of beauty and nobility, showing that Haysbert’s face actually fits these meanings, but not these descriptions. But I’m not sure what that would have to do with the rest of the movie.
I suppose I should’ve watched the commentary track, because I honestly have no idea what to make of this stuff, or what they intended. But I also don’t think it detracts from anything not to know. It’s not a huge amount of suspension of disbelief to ask. It’s pretty simple. And it does help with the storytelling in certain ways. We never question which brother is which, for example. There’s no chance of a switcheroo where maybe we think it’s Clay thinking he’s Vincent but actually it is Vincent, or whatever. This is definitely our guy, the good one.
SUTURE is the feature debut of Scott McGehee and David Siegel, who are not brothers or lookalikes, and have since done THE DEEP END, BEE SEASON, UNCERTAINTY and WHAT MAISIE KNEW. After seeing a rough cut of it, Steven Soderbergh became executive producer and helped them find completion funds. Something about it does remind me of his early work. Somehow Shimono’s narration (which reminded me of Rod Serling at first, but ends up making more sense once you know which character is speaking) has a slight SCHIZOPOLIS flavor, I think. And I suppose the unusual Phoenix setting reminds me of SEX LIES AND VIDEOTAPE taking place in Baton Rouge, but these guys aren’t from Phoenix, they intentionally chose to set it there because of how it looked. Good idea. Good effort. Worth seeing.