The prologue of Suture, which also serves as its trailer, is chilling and teasingly elliptical. A man awakens in the middle of the night to hear someone sneaking into the house. He retreats to the bathroom, where he huddles in the tub with a shotgun, waiting for the intruder, who is also armed. Over this, we hear a dispassionate voice (Sab Shimono's) discussing the pathology of amnesia. We quickly realize that we're being given the end of the story first--an old trick, but a good one.
Most of Suture consists of old, good tricks, craftily done. This low-budget debut effort, written, produced and directed by the filmmaking team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel, has the plot of a mystery-thriller in the Hitchcockian vein. In terms of dialogue, composition and montage, it's a straightforward, elegantly simple film. But it's dominated by a quirky physical anomaly that McGehee and Siegel have chosen to place right at the visual center of the film. It would have left poor old Hitchcock scratching his head in puzzlement.
The central oddity of Suture is of casting. The plot involves a man who attempts to fake his own death by murdering his long-lost, look-alike brother, the existence of whom is known only to him. Here's the weird part: Clay, the victim brother, is played by huge, black Dennis Haysbert (best known for the Major League films), while Vincent, the would-be killer brother, is played by slight, white Michael Harris. During the early, setup portion of the film, the two men repeatedly make reference to how similar they look.
Clay survives the attempt on his life, coming out of it with severe burns and a case of amnesia. After a little work by a plastic surgeon (Mel Harris), from which he emerges still looking for all the world like a large, healthy, black man, even he doesn't know that he's not the real Vincent. The reason for the real Vincent's plot soon becomes clear--he was about to be arrested for murdering his father. Clay, thinking he's Vincent, is overcome with guilt for a murder he believes he may have committed.
Suture is a coolly assured piece of filmmaking. The pace is deliberate but nicely controlled, the images, shot in snazzy black and white by Greg Gardiner, are impeccable, and there's an eerie musical score by Cary Berger. There are some admirable solutions to the privations of a low budget, as well, like not being able to afford blowing up a luxury car.
One could wish the bearlike Haysbert was a more exciting actor, but he has a gentleness that makes him sympathetic--and a good foil for Michael Harris' odious Vincent. Mel Harris' plastic surgeon, who also becomes Clay's love interest, is adequate, and there are creepy bits contributed by Dina Merrill and Fran Ryan.
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But the obvious question is, what's the big idea with the identical brothers? This sort of "statement" casting has become commonplace in the modern theatre, where we've learned to accept it as a convention, but we're not used to it in film. Once we figure out that it's a convention here, as well, we accept it while watching Suture; it's surprising how quickly our minds adapt and forget about the strangeness, even in the ostensibly more "literal" realm of filmed reality. But we're still left wondering just what the heck the statement is.
Is it some sort of racial comment? I don't think so, at least not primarily. It may be intended to help emphasize the class difference between the filthy-rich Vincent--who lives here in Phoenix, where most of the film was shot--and the honest workingman Clay, who appears to have been a junkyard crane operator in Needles, California, before he fell into Vincent's clutches. But if so, it's a pretty extreme way to make the point.
I think it's simply a wry joke, intended mainly to get us critics buzzing (see how well it's working?) and to nudge the audience with the silliness and artifice of the contrived-thriller form. What's remarkable is that it works; it doesn't seem pretentious or dumb. Without this cheeky coup de cinema, Suture would be little more than a genre exercise, intelligently made but routine, sterile, even a little pedantic. Instead, it's fascinatingly peculiar.