I watched this again last night… A film that we could say defies classification, but is often described as a neo-noir thriller; one that may seem at first to be more concerned with how it looks than with what lies underneath its glossy surface, which makes some sense when one realizes that the filmmakers, co-directors, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, have a design school background.
But it’s a promising concept, one that, as one of my colleagues put it, deals with the existential nature of “Black” identity. If Frantz Fanon was a filmmaker, this might have been something he would’ve created, with explorations of identity and race at its core.
Comparisons to the likes of David Lynch, surrealist Luis Bunuel, and even Hitchcock have been made.
In short, wealthy white Vincent (played by Michael Harris) and working class black Clay (played by Dennis Haysbert), are long-lost half-brothers who contact each other after their father’s death. Vincent uses the arrival of Clay to engineer his own death; in a twist, Clay survives only to be burnt beyond recognition, and suffers amnesia. At the hospital, a plastic surgeon reconstructs his face, but based on pictures of Vincent, and a psychiatrist helps reconstruct his personality, and memories. That Vincent is a white man, while Clay is a black man, is lost on everyone else; no one seems to notice the obvious physical differences between the two, and the audience is essentially forced to believe the same.
It’s a confounding plot that has and will inspire lots of analysis. The filmmakers take elements like fear and paranoia, plot devices like amnesia, plastic surgery, and doubles, to what seem like fairly logical extremes.
“It’s a suspension of disbelief… but it’s also breaking the fourth wall, an alienating effect that makes the whole process of cinema ultra-real, because you get to experience something outside of the narrative itself,” said co-director David Siegel.
But it’s that self-consciousness that I think undermines the film, as it borders on the absurd.
However, it remains a kind of cool, odd fascination for me; its evocative black & white film stock, pristine instead of gritty as you might expect; its tongue-in-cheek humor which should at times elicit a chuckle or two. Although I suspect most will likely be more impressed with the film’s style, not its genre-bending plot.
It was released in 1993, but never really found an audience, despite critical acclaim. And not-so surprisingly, Steven Soderbergh came onboard to serve as executive producer after the film was done, to help raise its profile.
Here’s its trailer: