Saturday, April 5, 2008

Sleuth -- Control over others

In the opening shot the camera looks vertically downward at a car pulling to a stop at the doorway of an 18th century English manor house. Jude Law emerges, rings the door bell and waits on Michael Caine to open the door and introduce himself. This odd camera angle is just the first of many unsettling shots that unsettle the audience so that just when we think we see what is going on we are thrown again.

Caine plays Andrew Wyke a successful crime novelist whose wife Maggie is now living with Milo Tyndle, Law’s character. Caine is dressed all in black, shirt, tie and suit. At the outset Tyndle declares his apparent desire – an easy divorce for Maggie, so they can marry. Caine is not willing to agree quickly or easily. And so begins a cat-and-mouse game of wits, as the two spar verbally.

The home itself is almost a character, since its inside has been transformed into a gallery of art pieces and high tech gadgetry. With security cameras everywhere, lighting rigs that move and change color, the house conveys a sense of continual change and conspicuous success, as well as a hint of danger. Indeed, its overdone modernity presents a twisted and distorted reality that matches its owner.

As the plot develops, it becomes clear that there is more to both characters than meets the eye. Wyke has control, from the remote he carries everywhere that controls almost features of his electronic home, to the commands he gives Tindle. There is a game to be played and there are rules to be obeyed. But whose rules?

This is a reinterpretation of the 1972 film adaptation of the stage play of the same name. Michael Caine starred as Tindle in that movie against Laurence Olivier’s Wyke. (It was the first movie where the entire cast was nominated for Oscars – all two of them, both for best actor.) But this is not a remake. The script was written by the nobel-prize winning playwright, Harold Pinter, who had not seen the 1972 version. So, the basic plotline remains the same, but the dialog is fresh and snappy. Indeed, Pinter brings a level of poetry to the prosaic and banal dialog that is wonderfully normal while at the same time being sinister and suspenseful. And Ken Branagh directs these two great English actors in an almost claustrophobic setting.

The movie’s three acts have terrific twists that are unforeseen, even if you have seen the earlier version. With each development, the masks of the two characters slowly peel away, almost literally. Is Wyke simply a novelist, or is he a murderous psychotic? Is Tindle an emerging actor or a dour hairdresser? Both are enigmatic and deep. Both are seeking control over the other. And the movie remains surprising even to the end, leaving us wondering. To say more would ruin the film, and it is a treat, despite the excess of bad language.

Sleuth gives us a portrait of urbane humanity that is simply camouflage for the controller beneath. It shows man wanting to control another man. It forces us to wrestle the whole ethical idea of control. When do we seek control? And why? Is it for honest and pure motives? Or are there deeper and darker purposes that we hide from all but ourselves (and God)? Are we seeking personal power, fame or fortune? What lengths are we willing to go to gain and retain control? In a family with four kids, I see control issues, mine and theirs, almost daily. And these need to be brought under control.

The picture of control and camouflage in the two-person movie Sleuth reminds us of the two-person “play” at the start of the gospels. After Jesus had spent 40 days in the desert fasting, Satan tempted him. In three temptations, Satan tried to gain control. He offered Jesus control, control over all the kingdoms of the world (Matt. 4:8-9). But there was a catch, there were rules to obey. Jesus had to worship Satan. And Satan himself masquerades as a good guy, an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14). The usurper who wants control, has a mask that hides his true intentions. Ultimately, in this two-person “play” Jesus resisted the devil, and God remains in control. How ever many levels of masks we choose to hide behind, God is always in control!

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

1 comment:

  1. Great review Martin! I definitely see what you are saying about the issue of trying to control other people, and I think the comparison with the Temptation of Christ is insightful and right on.

    The original 1972 version of this film is actually one of my favorites. I just saw this one recently and thought it was interesting how they took certain elements of the plot and dialog in new directions.