Tag Archives: David Siegel

LIST CANDIDATE: SUTURE (1993)

DIRECTED BY: Scott McGehee, David Siegel

FEATURING: Dennis Haysbert, Mel Harris, Sab Shimono, Michael Harris

PLOT: A poor man discovers he has a wealthy brother, who subsequently tries to kill him as part of a criminal scheme. Surviving the attempt but with his memory wiped out, he assumes his brother’s identity, begins a romantic relationship with his doctor, and finds himself the target of the would-be assassin’s effort to finish the job.

Still from Suture (1993)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: A full-length tribute to the concept of nontraditional casting, Suture attempts to answer the question, “if you cast someone who absolutely does not fit the character description in a film where that character’s appearance is the crux of the film’s plot, does it make a difference?” Casting is the raison d’être of Suture, and the film knows it, letting its odd gimmick overwhelm every other element of the movie.

COMMENTS: So let’s get right to the twist: Brothers Clay and Vincent are repeatedly described as being near lookalikes, and marvel at their resemblance to each other. But they don’t look alike. Not even a little. They are completely different. And not in a “Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman and Matthew Broderick play three generations in the same family” way. No, they are entirely different, especially in the sense that Michael Harris is a thin, slick white man, and Dennis Haysbert (later on TV’s “24”) is…not. So every mention—and there are many—of how strikingly similar the two men look is either calculated to generate a massive case of cognitive dissonance, or is an example of the most colorblind casting ever committed to film.

It’s very easy to look at this decision as an enormous joke. After all, directors McGehee and Siegel (who also penned the screenplay) demonstrate a quirky sense of humor, from placing a rich Phoenix businessman’s home inside what appears to be an abandoned bank building to scoring an attempted car-bomb-assassination to Tom Jones’ rendition of “Ring of Fire.” But any question as to whether this is a deliberate choice is erased by the dialogue that is used to describe Haysbert’s Clay: “Greco-Roman nose.” “Fine, straight hair.” This is the “Allstate” commercial guy we’re talking about. Haysbert is absolutely not the man the film says he is. So what does that mean?

One possible answer lies in McGehee and Siegel’s backgrounds as an academic and an artist, respectively. While the choice of a black actor to play a white man (coupled with stark black and white photography to reinforce the point) might seem to point to a discussion of race, they seem far more interested in exploring the nature of reality vs. representation. In her book “Desiring Whiteness: A Lacanian Analysis of Race,” Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks observes of Suture, “What we are confronted with is a screen that behaves like a Magritte canvas. ‘This is not a black man,’ it seems to say.” The filmmakers, she suggests, are actively denying that which we are seeing with our own eyes, in contrast to the manner in which cinema traditionally co-opts the audience’s willingness to accept the visual as truth. Is Dennis Haysbert as a Caucasian anymore absurd than a Transformer? McGehee and Siegel don’t think so, but they also know that, as moviegoers, we are far more willing to accept the latter.

As a metatextual analysis of the fungible nature of reality, Suture is a tremendous success. As a movie, it’s kind of sloppy. Not very much happens in the film. The plot itself is a straightforward play on the country mouse coming to the city. Mel Harris plays less a character than a collection of whatever character traits are needed in the moment: brilliant surgeon, then opera devotee, then skilled skeet shooter. A subplot about the police’s pursuit of Vincent feels more like padding than a suspense-building MacGuffin. More problematic, though, is the film’s outsized sense of self-importance. Characters frequently speak in a slow, affectless manner. They are surrounded by signifiers of their work. (The surgeon has walls of head X-rays, the psychiatrist decorates in mammoth Rorschach blots). Clay’s dreams are blatant symbols of a truth we already know, as if Gregory Peck’s hallucinations in Spellbound only came after Ingrid Bergman cracked the case. Perhaps most gallingly, the love interest is named, without a trace of irony (or payoff), Renée Descartes. The unheard soundtrack of Suture is crashing anvils.

What Suture has going for it, though, is staying power. Long after the film’s end, the scope of its oddity still bounces around in the brain pan. The film’s ending montage—the psychiatrist outlines in great detail how impossible it will be for Clay to ever find happiness in his new identity, while a slideshow clearly demonstrates Clay doing exactly that—is emblematic of the movie’s only goal: to watch the battle for dominance between what we know and what we see. Suture has one weird card to play, but it’s a doozy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an exceedingly smart and elegant American indie in an unusual vein. Part mystery thriller, part psychological investigation and part avant-garde experiment…”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (contemporaneous)