Tag Archives: 1993

CAPSULE: CANNIBAL! THE MUSICAL (1993)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Trey Parker

FEATURING: Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Dian Bachar, Ian Hardin, John Hegel

PLOT: Alferd Packer and a small band of hopeful gold-rushers lead an ill-fated expedition from Utah to Colorado through the snowy Rocky Mountains. Six walk in; one walks out. It’s also a musical.

Still from Cannibal! the Musical (1993)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The base premise of a comedy-musical about a historic cannibal gold-rusher is certainly attractive enough to watchers of weird. Beyond that, Cannibal! The Musical, while funny and charming, doesn’t shoot for the extremes of weirdness commonly seen on the List. It’s not even the first musical western comedy we’ve reviewed here, and it’s way at the end of the line of movies we’ve considered.

COMMENTS: Fans of the animated franchise “South Park” can already tell you how skilled Trey Parker and Matt Stone are at writing musicals; the theatrical feature South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut was a surprising hit with show-stopping numbers, and then “The Book of Mormon” (the play, not the book) cemented their reputation. And of course, black humor is a given with this creative pair. So it’s interesting to see their work on this low-budget production when they were still students at University of Colorado-Boulder, before “South Park” made them famous. It released originally as Alferd Packer: The Musical in 1993 before Troma Entertainment, spiritual peers to Parker/Stone, picked it up for distribution as Cannibal! The Musical.

For a hopeful few seconds it meets the expectation you have for a Troma movie, when the film opens with a deranged cannibal attacking and taking bites out of hapless settlers in the snowy woods. This turns out to be a flashback from a courtroom, circa 1883, where defendant Alferd Packer (Trey Parker) is on trial for murdering his traveling party. Later, in his cell, a local reporter who’s attracted to bad boys goads him into telling her his story, by segue of talking about his horse, Liane. And so we’re swept into the musical tale of the ill-fated Alferd Packer’s Gold Rush expedition in 1874, accompanied by a ragtag band of optimistic hangers-on—teenagers James Humphrey (Matt Stone) and George Noon (Dian Bachar), Mormon priest Shannon Bell (Ian Hardin), butcher Frank Miller (Jason McHugh), and twinkle-toed Israel Swan (John Hegel)—none of whom have the slightest clue about gold-mining or surviving treks through the Rockies in the dead of winter.

Of course, for a campy comedy musical, the movie treats the historical Packer’s tale with about as much accuracy as Mel Brooks recounting the Spanish Inquisition. Townspeople and random pioneers on the trail warn the party of grave doom, Indians, and a cyclops (who proves disappointingly un-Harryhausen). The group stays disciplined by putting individuals on time out when things get uncivil. Bad luck haunts the crew in every way from losing the horse (to which Packer will sing an ode) to stumbling into random bear traps, and the crew gets lost enough to chance upon the Grand Canyon on their way from Utah to Colorado. A band of punk-rock trappers taunt the party along the way. Asian kung-fu Indians beset the party. While not a lot makes sense, the story moves at a swift enough clip that you’ll barely mind. Be wary after watching it so you aren’t caught idly singing “Hang the Bastard” in inappropriate contexts.

Formed from the quirky imaginations of the Parker/Stone team, Cannibal! The Musical is an enjoyable romp with plenty of the team’s trademark dark humor. The production at times is patterned after Oklahoma! There’s parody of tropes both musical (songs break down mid-verse as the singers argue about chord theory) and western (“Look at all these teepees we have; because we’re Indians!”), yet despite the gory opening scene there’s barely a whiff of a horror aspect: our Troma expectations fizzle after the first five minutes and don’t rekindle until the final twenty. Considering it was a student effort that started out as a fake trailer for film class before the professor called the team’s bluff, the movie is an excellent, if silly, effort. Its legacy is a cult following, the occasional stage revival, and the introduction of “shpadoinkle” into weirdophile vocabulary. But it only has passing business flirting with the wild west of weird cinema.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s all pretty stupid, but at times, there are refreshingly ludicrous notes that even people old enough to see this movie without a guardian can appreciate. One approach: Imagine the film taking place in South Park animation. If Cartman were ripping that man’s arm off and eating it, it might be cute.”–Anita Gates, The New York Times (1998 revival)

CAPSULE: BLUE (1993)

DIRECTED BY: Derek Jarman

FEATURING: Voices of Derek Jarman, John Quentin, Tilda Swinton, Nigel Terry

PLOT: Filmmaker Jarman documents his physical decline from AIDS, with his failing vision represented by a continuous, unchanging blue screen.

Still from Blue (1993)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A movie where the screen is a single solid color for the full running time is, without dispute, unusual. But beyond that unconventional visual strategy, Blue is a straightforward, often bracingly direct audio memoir, contemplating death with sober and unvarnished clarity.

COMMENTS: When cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the man behind the striking visuals in the films of directors like Wong Kar-Wai and Yimou Zhang, was invited by the Telegraph to pick a single film to discuss for a series on influences, his choice was immediate and without hesitation. Blue, he said, was “one of the most intimate films I’ve ever seen.

It’s surely an odd choice for an acclaimed cinematographer, given that the biggest part of the film’s reputation is dedicated to its unorthodox visual: a screen filled—edge-to-edge, start-to-finish—with a single color, International Klein Blue, never changing, never varying. It’s fair to ask if a movie where nothing moves, where nothing appears, is even a movie at all.

In the truest sense, Blue is a radio essay, a production-heavy tone poem that wouldn’t be totally out of place on “This American Life.” (Indeed, after the film’s release, Britain’s Radio Three broadcast the audio on its own). One of the much-trumpeted merits of radio is that the listener can create pictures in the imagination that go beyond the limits of visual media. With Blue’s lush audio production (for which particular credit must be given to sound designer Marvin Black and composer Simon Fisher-Turner) and Jarman’s rich, sonorous British baritone as anchor, surely pictures aren’t even necessary.

But even in physical decline, Jarman remains a filmmaker, an artist with a discerning eye. And if the only thing he can see is the color blue, then that’s what his film will look like. The auteur theory posits that the director is a figure of singular vision, and this film carries that notion to its extreme: when you look at blue for the duration of the film, you are witnessing the director’s literal vision transferred to the screen.

Jarman himself is a sterling performer. When he extols the artistic virtues of the color blue, he reads as both erudite and heartfelt, while his lament for his fading vision is composed as it measures the weight of the loss. He lends warmth to the narration, even as his thoughts on death are calm and resigned. This can be hilarious in counterpoint, as when an introspective passage is immediately followed by a lewd gay parade chant. It can also be wrenching, such as his cool recitation of the myriad ways in which friends have met their own ends at the hands of the AIDS virus.

But while Jarman’s pain and frustration are clearly in evidence, what really dominates the telling of the tale is his growing recognition of the absurdity of it all. His descriptions of endless medical indignities—lesions and pills, long waits and painful IV drips, lengthy stays in waiting rooms—are delivered without anger, without passion. Stories of war and catastrophe have lost their power to sting. Even a quick impulse to go shoe shopping quickly fades. “The shoes I’m wearing at the moment will be sufficient to walk me out of life,” he observes. Jarman’s journey is one of growing disconnection from the world. Just as his vision has been reduced to a single color, his engagement with life is being pared down to the bare essentials. Put another way, the narrator we meet in Blue is in full DGAF mode, and finds beauty even in that.

A frequent parry to the claim of weirdness is that the thing deemed “weird” is actually “artistic.” There’s no reason that an artwork can’t be both, of course; one of the expectations of artists is that they see the world differently and their output reflects their unique point of view. But the distinction seems critical in assessing Blue. A mainstream moviegoer might look at the blue screen and see something too strange to comprehend, but Jarman is an artist, assembling every tool at his disposal (or, in the case of his eyesight, a tool lost) to make a statement. The art world seems convinced; the Tate Modern, MoMA, and the Getty are among the museums that have placed Blue on exhibit. Static screen be damned; Jarman has made a movie, and it is a powerful cinematic valedictory.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Still fiercely experimental and controversial, with no visual images other than an unchanging blue screen, Blue is perhaps not the most accessible film from Derek Jarman and it will certainly appeal more to fans of the director who will better appreciate the insight it provides into the director’s mindset during the final years of his life. On the other hand, dealing with notions of mortality and creativity when faced with illness and death, the film also has a much wider interest and poetic resonance in its words, sounds, music and in the impact on the retina of watching a pure blue screen for 75 minutes.” – Noel Megahey, The Digital Fix

(This movie was nominated for review by Nick. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

READER RECOMMENDATION: SUPER MARIO BROS. (1993)

Reader Review by John Klingle

DIRECTED BY: Annabel Jankel, Rocky Morton

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: Two plumbers from Brooklyn are unwittingly warped into an alternate dimension populated by human-dinosaur hybrids, and  discover a plot to invade the Earth that only they can prevent.

Still from Super Mario Bros. (1993)

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The fugitive Princess Daisy discovers her long lost father, the King: a sentient mass of yellow fungus drooping from the ceiling above his old throne.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Combining slapstick humor and trite wordplay with a penchant for grotesque visuals and fascist imagery completely disconnected from its beloved source material, Super Mario Bros. seems determined to shock and disturb its supposed target audience.

COMMENTS: The original sin of video game-to-movie adaptations, Super Mario Bros. is widely regarded as a transgression against its beloved source material and a discordant mish-mash of half-baked, poorly-executed ideas. But while it’s true that the film is unforgivable as an adaptation, looking at Super Mario Bros. for its own merits reveals a unique Gothic fantasy filled with psychedelic imagery.

Rather than making any real effort to replicate the experience of playing Shigeru Miyamoto’s foundational game series, Super Mario Bros. instead takes the bare skeleton of the Mario games and builds its own dystopian adventure around it. The elements the film plucks from the games are well-chosen ingredients for a cult film, too: it borrows the game series’ central fish-out-of-water fantasy world conceit (The Wizard of Oz), its recurring theme of bodily transformation (Videodrome), and its visual obsession with ducts and pipes (Brazil ) and, of course, mushrooms (“,” take your pick). The filmmakers (“Max Headroom” creators Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton) unfortunately don’t manage to create any sense of cohesion among these various elements, but this doesn’t prevent each of them from being deeply memorable on its own.

Mixed in liberally with these ingredients from the games are the film’s own inventions, whose connection to the Mario universe is much more tenuous. The most notable of these is the corporate fascist imagery. The movie adaptation re-imagines the games’ draconic King Koopa as a Donald Trump-like plutocrat who runs a mechanized police state under the guise of democracy. This conceit is perhaps the film’s most powerful source of tonal dissonance: the bumbling, Stooges-like antics of Koopa’s minions do little to detract from the horror of seeing a street busker forcibly converted into a devolved monster as punishment for political dissidence.

Much like Labyrinth, Super Mario Bros.’ commitment, however lackluster, to being a commercial children’s film prevents it from pursuing its darker themes to any satisfying conclusion. In some ways, this makes it all the more disturbing; the film consistently dips its toes into dystopian or psychosexual territory only to retreat back into John Leguizamo and Bob Hoskins’ yukking and shucking, depriving the viewer of any catharsis. Super Mario Bros. is a movie that doesn’t leave you, its most bizarre moments sticking like burrs to the minds of the children who saw it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bizarre, replete in often stunning special effects and verrrry strange from the outset, Super Mario Bros is curiously entertaining, even though it often makes little sense.” – Roger Hurlburt, South Florida Sun Sentinel (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE BABY OF MÂCON (1993)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Peter Greenaway

FEATURING: Julia Ormond, , Philip Stone, Jonathan Lacey

PLOT: The story of a pseudo-miraculous infant unfolds in an elaborate passion play, which we watch along with 17th-century Italian aristocrats as they take in, and at times partake in, the play’s action.

Still from The Baby of Macon (1993)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Beyond my usual answer of, “quite frankly, every Greenaway movie probably qualifies for the List,” is the less fatalist reason that The Baby of Mâcon should count among the weirdest movies of all time because it makes all other Greenaway films (except, perhaps, The Falls) feel positively accessible and happy. More a recording of a hyper-sumptuous stage production than a film, this movie is such an embodiment of hyper-stylized hyper-formalism it proves that Peter Greenaway can, like Spinal Tap’s guitar amp, “go to eleven.”

COMMENTS: Despite his oeuvre’s opulence, stylishness, and glamour, Peter Greenaway could never be accused of catering to any audience other than himself. I mean this as no criticism. The reception to his films proves that there are non-Greenaways out there who can get on the same wavelength and, if not always enjoy, then at least appreciate the detailed grandeur of his vision. The Baby of Mâcon checks its way down the Greenaway list: stylized setting and dialogue, grandiose presentation, and a vicious current of sadism. We’ve seen that he can be lyrical (The Pillow Book), quirky (The Falls), and, sometimes, even commercially successful (The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, & her Lover). The Baby of Mâcon, however, is Greenaway at his angriest. Watching this film is like watching a back-alley murder scored by Wagner and choreographed by Baryshnikov.

The story is a simple plot of cynicism hijacked by vengeance. Sometime in the middle of the last millennium, a baby is born. The baby’s actual mother was long thought barren, and through some quick maneuverings, one of her daughters (Julia Ormond) claims to have birthed the child through some immaculate conception. A local Bishop’s son (Ralph Fiennes) is, along with his father, skeptical. The baby has his own evil streak and condemns the Bishop’s son to death by ox-goring for having almost taken (consensually) his false-mother’s virginity. The Bishop (Philip Stone) finds his son dead, takes the child, and exploits him further. The boy is killed by his false-mother, who herself is condemned to a fate that would be best left unsaid.

Nonetheless, it must be. Peter Greenaway, through all the pomp, costumery, and stylization of the dialogue, shows his true fury at religion, the aristocracy, and much else about societal order. With the blessing of the in-film audience member Cosimo Medici (Jonathan Lacey), the false-mother of the titular child is doomed to a death by rape. I won’t trouble you with the “logic” behind it, but through one of his beloved lists, Greenaway subjects his character to hundreds of such experiences, consecutively, at the hands of the local militia—all blessed and “pre-forgiven” for their acts by the Bishop. All this is done before an audience who gaze, along with us, at the cruelty. They, however, are observers of a “morality play”; we have the discomfort of acknowledging how immoral the play’s events are. The only blameless character, the Bishop’s son, is the unfortunate catalyst of this evil. He is referred to as a scientist before his demise, and seems of a level head. No room for him in this world of intrigue, superstition, and malice.

There is simultaneously not much more to say about this film, as well as extensive remarks to be made about the reams of allusions throughout. Uncharacteristically for Greenaway, there is often a great deal of on-screen confusion (à la Aleksey German), as the camera is often (seemingly) obtusely placed, mimicking the position of an audience member of a stage play. It is left to us to follow the action, scouring the screen for what is happening where.

A bit of trivia: this was Ralph Fiennes’ second film role. His third, which would make him famous, is substantially more uplifting and, even, more cheerful—Schindler’s List. Released the same year as The Baby of Mâcon, film distributors in North America found it easier to put the evils of the Holocaust on display than to reckon with the malignity found in Greenaway’s offering.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Not even Ken Russell could have dreamed up the stew of grotesque religiosity, slavering voyeurism and sexual violence that is Peter Greenaway’s 1993 movie, ‘The Baby of Macon’…”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (1997 screening)

LIST CANDIDATE: DARK WATERS (1993)

Temnye vody

DIRECTED BY:  Mariano Baino

FEATURING: Louise Salter, Venera Simmons, Mariya Kapnist

PLOT: Seeking answers to her own past, woman investigates an ancient holy order that guards a mysterious relic at a convent on an island.

Still from Dark Waters (1993)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Because the cute little Gollum guy on the ferryman’s boat squatting there chomping on raw meat is only the 80th or so most unforgettable image from this atmospheric dive into religious horror. That’s religion as in “Cthulhu,” not just “Virgin Mary.” Also, the nuns in this movie deserve to be the standard against which all creepy (not to mention crispy) nuns are compared. So throw the Gollum a bone: “He keeps the other freaks away!”

COMMENTS: We admit it’s cheap to invoke the name of Master David Lynch (may peace be upon the name of the prophet) up front in a review, but it bears mentioning that one of Lynch’s rules of creating atmosphere is “shut up and let the scenery do the talking.” After a brief opening narration cutting to a Spaghetti Western prop-store cattle skull, Dark Waters keeps its mouth shut throughout its eight minute prologue, by which time three people have died, while we hang on mute scenes of the rituals surrounding a demonic-looking holy relic. This silence, of course, forces us to refer to Alejandro Jodorowsky (our prayers with confidence are placed in his hands). Cut to 20 years later, and Elizabeth (Louise Salter) is riding the “bus of fools,” and later a rowboat manned by a Charon stand-in, on her way to an island to confront this religious order and find out why her departed father supported it.  The mysterious order is harsh and unwelcoming, and things get scary fast. Great, now we have to name-drop The Wicker Man too. What we’re saying here is, even if Baino doesn’t prove worthy of being honored alongside the weird director greats, he has certainly walked their path.

Anyway, we’re in for the good old-fashioned Gothic interpretation of Catholic (or is it Orthodox?) faith. You bet your sweet bippy there will be spectral nuns chanting in Latin, self-flagellation with snapping whips, and a slow lingering camera pan over a crucifix every other minute (yes, Ken Russel, we thought of you too). The convent is all candlelit and leaky amid a solid movie-long rainstorm, with every color an earth tone as the constant drip of water threatens to snuff out the candles. When Elizabeth flashes her pack of Marlboros here, it’s like an aberration from another universe. Not that the nuns will mind, as most of them are blind, apparently from exposure to the bad mojo on the island. Mother Superior (Mariya Kapnist), seems to get her counsel from these blind, mummy-like nuns while she herself keeps her vision. She assigns Sarah (Venera Simmons) to see to her guest (stuck here because the boat only runs once a week), even while bluntly telling Elizabeth that it’s none of her damn business what the convent does. But we get plenty of hints anyway, from Elizabeth’s nightmares that reel down catacomb corridors lit with enough candles to smoke out Hades, to Elizabeth turning straight to the Book of Revelation to read about the Apocalypse. Elizabeth and Sarah trespass in cavern and attic alike to explore the mystery, but they have to be careful. Blind or not, the nuns will kill to protect their secrets. Of course we have an idea where this is going, but that doesn’t matter, because while the whole plot can be spoiled in two sentences, how we get there is much more important.

For a movie with such a taciturn script, it is a good thing that Dark Waters makes such excellent use of the visual side of the medium. Every frame is composed to etch itself onto your eyeballs, every note of music designed to stretch your last nerve to the breaking point, every ray of light muted into a dramatic chiaroscuro shadow. Burning crosses wielded by nuns stampeding over hills at night cut to horrific drawings of tentacled monstrosities in tomes of ancient lore. It’s so heavy on atmosphere that you don’t watch this movie so much as you lay back and smoke it. If we could pick any bones with Dark Waters, it’s that the film tends to be a little -ish/Dario Argento-like at times, as many shots are there just to gawp at rather than advance the plot. And let’s face it, the story is derivative, equal parts and Italian giallo thrillers, except the nuns here mostly keep their tops on. Waters even invokes The Haunting of Hill House, since Elizabeth is a stranger visiting this strange place while having deep, but inscrutable, connections to it, and having a woman her age as her sole confidant. But the individual details push this effort far above its roots.

This is Mariano Baino’s sole feature length credit, with nothing else to his name but for a few shorts. With this nearly-undiscovered gem for a freshman effort, will we even begin to apprehend what he could do for an encore? It’s been 24 years since Dark Waters came out, so we may never know what else this visionary is capable of.

Dark Waters was re-released by Severin Films on DVD, and for the first time on Blu-ray (sold separately) in 2017. The elaborate edition comes with directorial commentary and hours of special features.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…may not get everything right, but with Elder gods, inbred fishing villages, and a striking visual aesthetic that emphasizes the dark, barely glimpsed corners where evil might well lurk, it comes pretty darn close to catpuring that old Lovecraftian magic on film… the director’s painterly mise-en-scene often reminded me of one of my favorite directors, Jean Rollin, and his dreamlike, borderline surreal symbolism.”–The Vicar of VHS, Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies (DVD)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Dark Waters (1993 film) – The film’s entry at Cthulhu-Wiki

279. THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF TOM THUMB (1993)

“We have tried to create a kind of ‘nether world’ that would seem timeless. A strange place that would be uncomfortably familiar.”–Dave Borthwick

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Dave Borthwick

FEATURING: Nick Upton, Deborah Collard

PLOT: When wasp-guts accidentally fall into a jar of artificial sperm, the resultant baby is a fetus-like boy about the size of a thumb. While Tom is still a pre-verbal toddler, men in black suits kidnap him from his poor but loving home and take him to their “Laboratorium” for study. Escaping with the help of a tiny dragon-like creature, Tom stumbles upon to other miniature people who live in a state of eternal war against the “giants,” before reuniting with his father.

Still from The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie’s plot is suggested by the fairy tale “Tom Thumb,” the oldest surviving English folktale, but beyond the presence of a tiny child there are few similarities to the ancient legend.
  • The movie was originally commissioned by the BBC as a ten-minute short to be shown at Christmastime, but they rejected the end product for being too dark. The station changed its mind after the short became an award-winning hit on the festival circuit, and co-funded this one-hour feature version of the story.
  • Tom Thumb was also partly funded by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, who also wrote the theme song.
  • Besides stop-motion animation, Tom Thumb uses a technique called “pixilation,” which is basically the same idea but with live actors instead of models. Director Borthwick found that professional actors lacked the patience to sit still for the hours sometimes required for shots where humans interacted with puppets, so he used animators and technical personnel in the main roles instead (star Nick Upton is a primarily an animator specializing in pixilation).
  • After debuting on television, Tom Thumb toured the film festival circuit and even booked theatrical dates in the U.S., paired with the excellent and bizarre short “Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There’s so much to choose from—particularly the surrealistic menagerie of disembodied body parts and mix-and-match homunculi from the Laboratorium—that the wilder images cancel each other out. In fact, it’s the faces of our two leads—the innocent, half-formed clay features of Tom and the greasy, beaming mug of his proud working-class dad—that stick in the mind. Indeed, for the poster and DVD cover images, the producers used such of scene of the two principal characters posing together (it’s a promotional still of a domestic scene that does not actually occur in the movie).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Flying syringe insect; crucified Santa; halo of vermin

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The tone of this fairy tale is hard to explain: equal parts silent slapstick, dystopian futurism, and ian surrealism, delivered through twitchy visuals that makes it play like a particularly restless dream. There is an unexpected sweetness to the concoction that helps it go down more smoothly than you might expect, but it still leaves a residue of nightmare behind.


Original trailer for The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb

COMMENTS:The had been producing surreal, Continue reading 279. THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF TOM THUMB (1993)

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)