The stuff of Suture (1993) — a Hitchcock-echoing wrong-man narrative shot in noir-indebted black-and-white and replete with big guns and hokey psychoanalysis — is the stuff of Hollywood. But co-writers and -directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel, who are both white and who were in their early thirties and inexperienced in moviemaking when they collaborated on the project, complicated the familiar package with an audacious, even bizarre racial doubling. Nobody in the world of Suture can tell apart the leads, two estranged brothers who are far from dead ringers: the bus-riding Clay Arlington (Dennis Haysbert, then little-known), a black man who dresses in jeans and baseball caps, and the insidiously wealthy Vincent Towers (Michael Harris), a white man with prim suits and an ominously spare Phoenix apartment.
Another noir element in Suture‘s DNA is the intrigue-generating flashback-plus-narration structure. The movie opens with a tease of a climactic bathroom shootout, plus heady voiceover from a yet-to-be-introduced therapist (Sab Shimono). But the story begins well before and hinges on that audience-challenging premise, as Clay and Vincent, reunited in the wake of their father’s death-by-homicide, marvel at the closeness of their likenesses — a closeness that viewers just have to accept. It’s this “resemblance” that sets the gears into motion: Vincent, guilty of the father’s murder (a means to gain an inheritance), engineers a second killing by which Clay will die via car bomb and, when found with Vincent’s ID on his person, be identified as the chief suspect in the first murder.
Though severely wounded, particularly in the face, Clay survives the explosion, foiling the plan. But he wakes up with amnesia, thus helping to cement the fictitious reality — explained to him by a doctor called Renée Descartes (Mel Harris), her name this movie’s idea of a joke — that he is, indeed, Vincent Towers. Haysbert makes for a suitably agonized lead, whispering weakly from beneath a blanket of gauze as he tries to make sense of Clay’s nightmarish predicament.
Unlike another anxious American tale of facial reconstruction and existential worry, John Frankenheimer’s claustrophobic Seconds (1966), Suture was shot (by Greg Gardiner) in the widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio. McGehee and Siegel use the ‘Scope format to engrossingly cerebral ends: When the camera circles the Rorschach-blotted office of a kindly shrink (Shimono), it’s as if it were probing someone’s brain; the littered-in flashes of Clay’s dreams, like the image of him standing by a highway at night in a tight-fitting tuxedo, are made even more disorienting by the generous canvas.
Suture, made independently on a strung-together budget of $1 million, was greeted upon release with befuddlement and minimal returns. (Steven Soderbergh, an indispensable late-in-the-game backer — he’s credited as an executive producer — will appear in conversation with McGehee and Siegel following Metrograph’s DCP screening.) But it stands to gain an admiring audience. It was released on DVD and Blu-ray last year by Arrow Video, and its low-budget flair and prickly puzzle-piece logic anticipate the work of Shane Carruth and Christopher Nolan. In their devotion to abstract concepts, McGehee and Siegel, like the Nolan of Inception (2010), deny their characters plentiful inner lives. But in the eerie coda, a series of still frames over which Shimono’s voice intones, or a scene of Renée describing Clay’s facial composition, framed in a gorgeous close-up on Haysbert, Suture opens up, if only briefly, to the conflicted human being supporting its enigmatic story.
Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel
Plays May 13