Monday, 10 April 2006

Where the Truth Lies (2005)

Beneath this murder mystery lies a cautionary tale of celebrity idols

Ah, the lure of showbiz, circa 1950. Appearing in stand-up acts at nightclubs, comedy revue shows at theatres and wildly popular telethons on television (think a Hollywood version of the NKF charity shows), Lanny Morris (Kevin Bacon) and Vince Collins (Colin Firth) work a classic straight man–funny man comedy act that pleases crowds tremendously. The fictional comedy team are on top of their game. They have the money (and those were the days when a million dollars was a great deal of money), the audiences, and all the girls they want. The discovery of the corpse of Maureen O’Flaherty, a college student, in the bathtub of their hotel suite one morning signals the end of that dream, even though there is never any evidence to link both comedians to the girl. The duo will never perform together again, speak to each other, or answer any questions to the press about the mystery.

The world has turned into a different place in the 1970s. Karen O’Connor (Alison Lohman) is a writer who specialises in tell-all celebrity biographies. Through creative means, the determined young woman manages to secure a contract with Vince to write his biography (Vince apparently needs the money). Will Karen be able to convince Vince to spill the beans? Will she, a lifelong fan of Lanny and Vince, be able to face whatever truth she learns?

Etom Egoyan’s latest offering is a multi-layered tale that attempts to work on many different levels all at once. At the most basic level, Where the Truth Lies appears to be a straightforward murder mystery. There is a body, there are only a few suspects who were around the time of the murder. Better still, Lanny and Vince apparently locked their conjoined hotel suite doors that evening, so the murder had to be in the hotel room already – the most annoying thing in murder mysteries is the unveiling of a completely unknown character as the culprit. The question, then, is who killed Maureen, what was the murder weapon, and why?

But remember, Egoyan is hardly known for making genre films. All of his previous movies featured twisting, convoluted plots, and Where the Truth Lies is no exception. This murder mystery is Rashomon meets Sunset Boulevard. Through a series of machinations and sometimes questionable tactics, Karen cajoles the aging has-beens to slowly peel away at the truth, yet every version of the story each comedian tells holds back something even more shocking. On screen, the events of the same fateful night are continually reconstructed as Lanny and Vince attempt to tell the truth – but not all of it, and as Karen attempts to reconstruct the real story in her mind. With each re-enactment, new and unpleasant truths emerge (Notably, in “real life”, Lanny and Vince are not quite the nice guys they appear on stage) that hint at some scandalous secret that led to Maureen’s murder and death. And each further re-enactment causes viewers to suspect that there must be some deeper truth behind what they have been presented with. Very few directors can pull this off convincingly and without annoying or confusing their audience.

At the same time, Egoyan’s movie pays its dues to the film noir genre, with copious amounts of voiceover narration by all 3 principal characters. There is a certain hardboiled quality to how the investigation unfolds, and the gritty and unsavoury world of the 1950s it gradually uncovers. Getting the noir feel right is no easy task, but it is even more challenging to create and sustain that mood when the events of the movie took place in the booming, glamourous 1950s (this period marked the rise of television and tv celebrities) and the psychedelic 1970s. It’s a peculiar experience to watch the picture-perfect 1950s and 1970s sets, and know at the same time that this is a noir film – and that despite how it sounds, this apparent mismatch actually gels together quite well.

Egoyan never plays any genre straight and shows it again here. Traditional noir is marked by a sense of physical danger lurking behind every frame, ready to pounce on the male detective character. Since the sleuth in this film is a young woman, Egoyan replaces traditional danger with emotional blackmail and very weird sex (that apparently is another one of his trademarks). While it may be somewhat gratuitous, I believe this choice works, only because it creates a sense of something rotten lurking behind the simple murder mystery, something so rotten it could even contaminate Karen O’Connor.

For all that, Where the Truth Lies would merely be a clever movie. However, the screenplay is deep enough to reach the souls of its characters, and offers some thought-provoking insights. Egoyan casts a discomforting light on the creation of idols, the lure and allure of celebrity to performers and their fans, and its intoxicating and corrupting influence on all parties. Kevin Bacon utters one line that illustrates all of that, when he confides to Karen that “Having to be a nice guy is the toughest thing in the world if you’re not.”

Also, I’m struck by the similarities of this film to Capote. A celebrity journalist sets out to uncover the truth about a murder mystery, and has to play a cat and mouse game with the interviewees in order to get them reveal more of the truth. There is a struggle of wills and power between the investigator whose career will be made once the interviewees tell the complete truth, and the interviewees who want to preserve their own agenda to control what the interviewer can and can’t know. Where the Truth Lies is much darker, mainly because the deception and emotional blackmail played by both sides knows no bounds, and because both sides must go all the way to either uncover or obfuscate the truth.

Egoyan is a consummate storyteller and filmmaker, and I have very few objections to the film. Several details are changed from the original novel by Rupert Holmes, some of which may affect the audience’s impression of who really killed Maureen Flaherty. You’re forced, at the end of the film, to wonder if the revelation is the final one or whether someone has told an untruth somewhere. You will step out of the cinema confused, trying to work out the infinite possibilities, or possibly get a copy of the novel for yourself. That may be a good or bad thing, depending on your preferences.

First published at incinemas on 20 April 2006

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