Neo-noir in the 1990s is loaded with the excesses of overeager directors, playing with noir's ominous shadows and tough-guy poses. A noir mystery about two half-brothers who get entangled in mistaken identity, Suture (1993), the debut feature of San Francisco filmmakers Scott McGehee and David Siegel, has little to say, but says it with panache. Vincent Towers (Michael Harris), the primary suspect in the murder of his wealthy father, plants evidence on his half-brother Clay Arlington (Dennis Haysbert), by staging a car explosion in which Clay is the intended victim. Vincent switches identities with Clay, who miraculously survives, though he's left disfigured and amnesiac. A working-class laborer, Clay is presumed by everyone to be Vincent, the killer.
A sympathetic plastic surgeon, Renee Descartes (Mel Harris), reconstructs Clay's face from photographs, and psychoanalyst Max Shinoda (Sab Shimono), who narrates the film in flashbacks, restores his memory. A reworking of Hitchcock's The Wrong Man, the tale positions Clay as the falsely accused everyman who must prove his innocence. Meant to be a meditation on the representation of race and class, Suture concerns the issue of how a different exterior functions in a cultural environment that's opaque, or in McGehee's words, “how a social group and a culture work”
The story begins with the psychiatrist's calm, authoritative voice talking about the nature of identity. Looking down from above, the camera captures a startling image: A black man dressed in white stands on one side of a white shower curtain; a white man dressed in black stands on the other.
The flashback leads full circle back to this point. When the long-lost, half-brothers meet at their father's funeral, Clay comments on how much they look alike; in reality, Clay is tall and well built, whereas Vincent is pale and slight. Vincent concurs, “our physical similarity is disarming isn't it” Suture's main joke is that everyone acts as if Clay and Vincent are identical twins, but it's a purely visual joke as the filmmakers fail to imbue it with any thematic weight.
For inspiration, the filmmakers drew from disparate stylistic and literary sources: paranoid thrillers, Japanese art films (Hiroshi Teshigahara's Face of Another), and American black-and-white films of the 1950s. From these works, they culled elements of fear and paranoia, and plot devices like amnesia, plastic surgery, and doubles, carrying them to logical extremes. The notion of twins is complicated by the characters' apparent inability to distinguish between black and white. “It's a suspension of disbelief,” Siegel said, “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.”
Nominally, this stylishly elegant tale is about racial biases, but, in actuality, the clever, visually-striking surface is the most important element, reflecting the directors' strong interest in art history and design. McGehee and Siegel shot the film in black and white in wide-screen, with Greg Gardiner's photography using gradations of blacks, silvers, and grays. Said McGehee: “Black and white is used in indies in guerrilla, 16mm gritty style. We wanted a pristine, studio look as much as we could get on our budget.”
Intriguing as the premise is, it serves the film as long as it's lightly treated, as when the plastic surgeon falls for Clay as Vincent–when the psychiatrist displays giant Rorschach blobs on his office walls as if they were decorative art, helping Clay sort out disturbing dreams about hypodermic needles turning into a car. But the film falls apart when it threatens to take itself seriously.
If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film(NYU Press, paperback 2001).