Ethics & Public Policy Center

Deceiver

Published in EPPC Online on February 1, 1998



Josh and Jonas Pate, co-directors of Deceiver, have all the vices of the Coen brothers—mainly pretentiousness and self-conscious artiness—without any of the virtues. Their film is not funny and not even particularly intelligent, although it tries very hard to be the latter. So much so, indeed, that the three main characters are introduced to us with a note of their IQs. Oh oh. That can mean only one thing: that the filmmaker thinks his IQ must come top of the standings. It’s not a good recipe for a watchable movie. More important than that, however, is the fact that it also suffers from a bad case of the chic nihilism which Quentin Tarantino and the creators of L.A. Confidential (for example), have recently been mistaking for the noir mood of classic Hollywood.

At the risk of repeating myself I must point out that, unless there is some standard of good to provide the background to the corruption such films present to us, the corruption itself is meaningless. Innocence and decency may be an endangered species in the more shocking of the noir classics, but it is always there and always provides an essential context. In L.A. Confidential and Hard Rain and Jackie Brown, innocence and decency are there but in insufficient quantities to form a moral context. In Deceiver they don’t exist at all. Even the local parish priest turns out to be a bagman for the underworld boss called Mook, who is played by Ellen Burstyn in luminescent eye-shadow.

Obviously such a film is interested in something other than moral context.

Like the others I mentioned, in fact, all it is really interested in is its images. This gives the actors nothing to do but strike attitudes. It tells the story of two cops, Braxton (Chris Penn) and Kennesaw (Michael Rooker) and the murder suspect, Wayland (Tim Roth) to whom they are administering a lie detector test. Braxton’s IQ is 102, Kennesaw’s is 122 and Wayland’s is 151. The crudely mechanical lie detector swiftly becomes a symbol of the difficulty of getting at the truth—a subject the banality of which the Pates are never quite able to resist. Guess what? Nothing is as it seems. Now there’s a surprise. But in order to create this artificial surprise, the Pates are forced to leap from one wild implausibility to another like mountain goats. Watching them do so is the only entertaining thing about this movie. And it is not entertaining enough.

If you don’t want to be told what happens in the end—as, I notice, people often don’t—read no further. If, on the other hand, you have no plans to see the picture and would like to know what I mean by implausibility, here’s the scenario. Both cops are (of course) corrupt, and one, Kennesaw, is himself the murderer. Turns out he is so overawed by the social superiority of his wife (Rosanna Arquette) that he is rendered impotent. She is driven into the arms of a lover and he is forced to seek out prostitutes to pretend to be his wife. One of them, Elizabeth Loftus (Renee Zellweger) laughs at him, and he kills her.

So far so good. Happens every day. But what the bad cop doesn’t know is that the chippy was videotaping the whole thing and that she was also friendly with Wayland in ways that led her to reveal to him all Kennesaw’s secrets. When Wayland is brought in as a suspect (since, although he is so well known to her, she still carries his phone number on a piece of paper on her person) he begins playing a complicated but boring game of cat and mouse with his two interrogators. They allow his impertinence in talking about their private lives, and Kennesaw even, in the climactic scene, submits to the suspect’s giving him a polygraph test—which of course shows that he, Kennesaw, is the guilty party as soon as the clever-clever Wayland has figured out his method of beating the machine. Yes, he killed the prostitute, but he really believed that the prostitute was his wife—because she played his wife on TV.

This unbelievable strategem, by the way, leads to an unintentionally comic moment when Wayland, the suspect turned interrogator, instructs Braxton to ask Kennesaw, all wired up to the machine, if he KILLED HIS WIFE! He does so and of course the needle goes haywire. Kennesaw blanches. “But,” says the bewildered Braxton, “your wife’s not dead, Ken.”

Wayland’s fiendish cleverness does not end there, however. With the help of Mook and an easy supply of bought doctors, bought paramedics, and bought funeral directors to go with the bought cops, he stages his own death, completely fooling everybody, including the two cops who have watched him pitch forward and hit his head on a desk while he was having (apparently) an epileptic seizure. But not before he confesses that, although Kennesaw killed Miss Loftus, he was the one who cut her body up in two pieces and left them in separate locations. He figured he would be the prime suspect in her murder and thought (clever as ever) that by pretending to be a mad sex-slayer they would think it must be (I guess) some troglodyte of a movie “serial killer” instead of him.

Actually, he’s the first person anyone with half a brain would think of in connection with such a crime. For although he is the scion of a wealthy manufacturer, a Princeton grad and apparently (though it’s hard to see why) a respected member of the community, we see enough of his life in flashback to know that he is also a scoundrel and a wastrel and unpardonably nasty to his long-suffering parents, a drunk with a passion for absinthe which, combined with his temporal lobe epilepsy (a shrink played by Michael Parks is whistled aboard this sinking ship to explain all this to us), leads to blackouts and violent episodes. But, as I have said, plausibility is not this film’s strong suit. Like Fallen Angels but less engagingly, it is simply a wallow in images of cool.

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