A murder has been committed, and, since this is a movie, it goes without saying that it is a sensational, grisly murder--a prostitute has been sawed in half, her body parts dumped miles from one another. A couple of detectives who specialize in polygraph tests are interrogating what amounts to the only, flimsily connected suspect, a guy otherwise not lacking for problems--he's an alcoholic epileptic estranged from his wealthy parents because he has no interest in putting his genius IQ to good use.
For a while, the unrelenting mind games of "Deceiver" are intriguing. But twin brothers Jonas and Joshua Pate, the filmmaking tyros who made a small splash at Sundance a couple of years back with "The Grave," have fashioned an only modest genre exercise that aspires to so much more, piling on the plot twists, tossing off eccentric asides, even reaching for some faux philosophizing.
By the end, there's a sort of anything-goes quality to the narrative and the film's distinctive look that defeats the coiled tension, and the Pate brothers' house of cards collapses. If just any old contrivance can be thrown out at any second, they fail to realize, then nothing has much weight or resonance.
Braxton (Chris Penn) and Kennesaw (Michael Rooker) are a couple of competent if unremarkable cops who are clearly in over their heads when they strap Wayland (Tim Roth) to the lie-detector machine. The gaunt, wiry Roth is a counterpoint in every respect to the soft, flaccid Rooker and Penn--as the film progresses, he proves to know more about the partnered cops than they know about each other.
The interrogation scenes are, until the over-the-top conclusion, effectively moody and claustrophobic. Too bad there are so many non-interrogation scenes littered throughout the movie.
Performances are strong, though each of the male stars are merely aping roles they've essayed several times before--Roth, the mercurial, potentially dangerous and definitely unhinged guy; Rooker, the bulky, hard-headed grunt; and Penn, the dumb but good-natured schmo.
The brothers Pate are trying to come across as the Coen brothers ("Fargo," etc.), Brian Singer ("The Usual Suspects") and, yes, "Pulp Fiction's" Quentin Tarantino, all at the same time. They work into the proceedings jokey title cards, split-screens, retro-timeless production design (everyone seems to have rotary-dial phones) and a willfully murky structure chockablock with flashbacks and/or fantasy sequences. But as the film's visuals become increasingly monochromatic, the already generous camera movements and expressionistic editing lurch into overdrive.
Alas, eventually such pyrotechnical stylishness, by calling attention to itself, undermines the suspense the Pates are attempting to create. Moreover, they make their story so willfully fuzzy that they seem to abandon logic. For example, the cops could have cleared up a whole lot of what they're trying to get out of Wayland simply by interviewing his parents.
And while the brothers are quite accomplished in scripting the confrontations between the cops and Wayland, their scenes between these men and the female characters are borderline embarrassing. The brothers wrote the role of the hooker especially for Renee Zellweger of "Jerry Maguire," which doesn't seem to be much of a gift--it's certainly not much of a role. Actresses, one would think, should raise an eyebrow or two if a role written specifically for them is that of a sleazy prostitute whose fate is to be cleaved in two.
Still, it's more than apparent from the film's evocative look and dialogue that these twins have talent enough for at least quintuplets. The Pates truly get jazzed cooking up oddball stuff and pulling things from their bountiful bag of cinematic tricks. Once they learn the pleasures inherent in a little restraint, both narratively and stylistically, perhaps they'll uncork a real gem.
* MPAA rating: R for violence, language and some sexual content. Times guidelines: a couple of fearsome scenes with women imperiled and a sexually charged murder, but most of the worst stuff happens just out of the view of the camera.
Tim Roth: Wayland
Chris Penn: Braxton
Michael Rooker: Kennesaw
Renee Zellweger: Elizabeth
MDP Worldwide presents a Peter Glatzer Production, distributed by MGM. Written and directed by Jonas and Joshua Pate. Produced by Peter Glatzer. Director of photography Bill Butler. Production designer John Kretschmer. Editor Dan Lebental. Costume designer Dana Allyson Greenberg. Music Harry Gregson-Williams. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
* In general release.