Pretending to be someone else isn’t simply a case of morphing into another personality – it requires both a dysfunctional internal disposition and some conducive environmental factors. Mark Fraser looks back at an independent American movie which shows just how strangely complicated becoming an imposter can be.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
At its monochrome heart Scott McGehee and David Siegal’s 1993 psychological thriller/dark comedy Suture suggests switching identities will only succeed if two key elements are in place. The first, which usually involves a certain degree of insanity, is self-delusion. Secondly, a good dose of self-denial must exist amongst those who surround the perpetrator if the ruse is going to work. While these mental afflictions are usually related in some way, they also seem to exist exclusively when it comes to identity theft given their varying impacts on the parties affected by the crime.
To help explore this pair of propositions, McGehee and Siegel – who also co-wrote and produced the movie – take the unusual (and somewhat comedic) step of casting an Africa-American and the whitest of Anglo-looking guys as the half-brothers involved in the switcheroo, a dramatic mechanism they call the central conceit*. In doing so, the filmmakers effectively ditch the need for a doppelganger, thus highlighting the stark differences between the two men rather than trying to identify any similarities they may have.
Although this approach – which demands a significant leap of faith by the audience – appears to be a little problematic at first, it soon becomes apparent it is quite an effective gimmick for a couple of reasons. Firstly, by making the crime blatantly improbable at face value but symbolically plausible, the writers/directors show how the irrational can sometimes be passed off as rational, even when the rationale behind it is obviously shaky.
Also, and this may or may not have been intentional, they use race as a kind of metaphor for delusion and denial. Everyone in the movie, it seems, is literally colour-blind, a point which is emphasised by Greg Gardiner’s crisp (and highly effective) black and white cinematography.
Suture begins with a reasonably straight-forward premise – spoilt Caucasian rich kid Vincent Towers (Michael Harris), who lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and has just murdered his politically-connected father, is contacted for the first time by his long lost, working class, black half-brother Clay Arlington (Dennis Haysbert) after the old man’s funeral. Instead of welcoming Clay to the family, though, Vincent decides to kill him and pass himself off as the corpse so he can disappear with the inheritance. (While they initially refer to each other as brothers, it soon becomes apparent – from a short line of dialogue during their brief time together – that they have different mothers.)
The murder doesn’t go to plan, however, and Clay survives the assassination attempt (a car bomb), but ends up in hospital badly disfigured and suffering from amnesia.
With the help of plastic surgeon Dr Renee Descartes (Mel Harris) and psychoanalyst Dr Max Shinoda (Sab Shimono) – who unquestionably assume their patient is Vincent – Clay is brought back to health, although he initially has no concrete memory of his former life.
Aside from having to come to grips with his new affluent surroundings (which are in stark contrast to the poverty of his Californian hometown of Needles), matters are complicated for the disorientated victim when he finds out he has been accused of killing his father. Meanwhile, the murderous Vincent is waiting somewhere in the background, still intent on knocking off his half-sibling in order to reclaim his fortune.
By the time Suture reaches this point, the first signs of self-delusion have well and truly manifested themselves. Although Vincent looks nothing like Clay, he is so deliriously driven by greed that he convinces himself they do resemble each other, causing him to claim: “Our physical similarity is disarming, isn’t it?” Furthermore, Clay is also under the allusion they are alike, saying this was his primary motivation for making contact following the funeral. “(It) just didn’t seem right not to at least say hello, to meet you at least once,” he tells Vincent after arriving in Phoenix by bus.
This moment echoes a different one in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1978 take on Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Despair, in which a Jewish Russian-born 1930s Berlin businessman (Hermann, played by Dirk Bogarde) finds his so-called “double” (Klaus Lowitsch) and then sets about murdering him as part of an elaborate scheme to collect an insurance payout before fleeing from the Nazis.
As with Vincent, Hermann is completely blind to the fact his lookalike doesn’t really look anything like him at all; his sights instead set firmly on the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow rather than the grim reality unravelling before him.
What differentiates these two, however, is the fact the Russian’s mental state is obviously decaying, providing something of an explanation for his self-delusion. Vincent, on the other hand, turns out to be nothing more than a ruthless psychotic killer, which in itself suggests that his head is also not entirely in a rational space.
Meanwhile, Clay’s so-called confusion arguably stems from his obvious desire to get out of the “rundown, dirty, poor and pathetic” backwater of Needles, possibly with the help of a long lost family member (admittedly this is debateable as he is defensive, almost to the brink of anger, towards his half-brother’s “generous” gift offers after they first meet; the point here being that Clay is already an extremely unhappy person when the movie starts).
Whichever way one looks at it these three men are, to some degree, mentally challenged – their collective self-imposed deception effectively negating any notion of consistent logical thought. Plus, in the case of Vincent and, to a lesser degree Clay, their suspension of belief is similar to that required by Suture’s audience. For those watching Despair, the shenanigans aren’t nearly as difficult to digest given the “doppelgangers” are at least ethnically comparable (not that it really makes a lot of difference in the long run).
When it comes to self-denial, just about all of the characters surrounding the brothers are inexplicably afflicted with it. Despite being medical professionals who seem to be at the top of their respective games, both Drs Descartes and Shinoda initially fail to recognise they are dealing with Clay – not Vincent – as they help their patient physically and mentally rebuild his life.
Very early in the treatment, for instance, Descartes is quite wary of him – her view tainted by (the real Vincent’s) reputation.
“I have to say that my impression so far hasn’t been that positive, but all I know about him is his background,” she tells Shinoda. “He has no job, he has very expensive tastes, he has no friends or relatives who care to see him and people think he killed his father.” This is all forgotten, however, when she eventually falls for her patient.
For his part, Shinoda is not so judgemental. “(He) seems quite pleasant to me underneath it all – there is a genuineness there that is surprising,” he observes. “He’s not behaving as he’s been known to. His personality seems to have shifted ground.”
This upbeat assessment is later reinforced by the hospital’s Nurse Stevens (Sandra Lafferty) during a small birthday gathering held for Clay just before he is discharged. “Here’s to a patient that has only been a pleasure to treat – a true Gemini,” she says.
By this point it’s obvious what is happening – all of the people surrounding Clay (including Vincent’s mother, played by Alice Jameson) subconsciously want him to be his brother because he is a much nicer person.
Even a witness to the father’s murder, Mrs Lucerne (Fran Ryan), is unable to unequivocally identify Clay at a police line–up organised by the officer-in-charge of the investigation, Lieutenant Weismann (David Graf), despite the fact she has previously indicated – after looking through some photos of possible suspects provided by the police – that Vincent looks like the killer. (As an aside, the film suggests the doddery Lucerne, who repeatedly claims she has a good memory, could well be the boys’ real mother after she tells the policemen that she once had two birds, but one of them died “when I was in the hospital” – revealing a potential bastard twins-separated-at-birth skeleton in the closet which is never followed up by the filmmakers, although it would not only account for Alice’s ambivalence towards her son’s death, but also explains why they have different family names.)
This kind of external self-denial is also rampant in another (and better known) European movie about identity theft – that being Daniel Vigne’s Le Retour de Martin Guerre (The Return of Martin Guerre), which was made in 1982 and stars Gerard Depardieu as Arnaud de Tihl, a 16th Century French peasant who assumes the identity of the titular character (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) after the latter runs off to join the Spanish army before spending a few years in a monastery.
While Tihl has to work reasonably hard to convince the villagers of Artigat that he is who he says he is, the imposter eventually wins most of them over – including Guerre’s deserted wife (Nathalie Baye) – not so much due to his detailed knowledge of his target’s life, but also because he is so damned charismatic (which provides Depardieu with a perfect role – he makes a great liar).
Like Clay, who is a much gentler person than his narcissist and vicious brother, Tihl is effectively what everyone wants him to be – so much that even his own family gives him the benefit of the doubt until he unwisely oversteps his mark.
One interesting point made in Suture is that this kind of self-deception isn’t limited to affecting people at a purely personal or emotional level. Rather, it also has the ability to cloud professional judgement, suggesting it influences both objective/rational and subjective/judgemental thinking.
This notion is explored by Ayanna Thompson in her 2011 book Passing Strange – Shakespeare, Race and Contemporary America (Oxford University Press), in which the author suggests both Descartes and Shinoda are either “ignoring or being blind to the specific and the particular because of their belief in the universal”.
“Thus the two doctors in Suture – one who works on the external aspects of the body and one who works on the internal aspects of the mind – operate according to what they assume are universal principles of their disciplines,” she notes. “Nevertheless, the film reveals their adherence to these principles to be short-sighted because neither plastic surgery nor psychoanalysis can fully remake Vincent Towers from Clay Arlington”.
If this is true, then the same could be said about Weismann, who doggedly tries to establish a case against Clay, but fails to see the obvious ethnical differences between the two men.
The futility of the policeman’s quest – which arguably is also being driven by his own beliefs in the universal principles of his discipline – is ultimately exposed when his key witness (Mrs Lucerne) asks why she should be expected to positively identify the shooter when the prime suspect has been subjected to plastic surgery.
“Precisely – it boggles the mind!” her obstructionist lawyer (John Ingle) angrily replies, proving that he too is letting himself be fooled by the events unfolding before him.
In Suture, no one is exempt from seeing only what they want to see or missing the obvious. If anything, everyone’s judgement is somehow clouded, regardless of how scientifically grounded their thinking might be.
During its final moments Suture, through Shinoda’s voice-over narration, seriously questions the ironic outcome of the inverted switcheroo, which sees Clay – whose memory has returned – turn the tables on Vincent in a shoot-out and happily keep his new identity.
“And, if by some chance over the cries of his huge ego, he is able to achieve true happiness, it will be false, empty, for he has buried the wrong life, the wrong past, buried his soul,” the psychoanalyst laments. “He has lost all that makes life worth living. Of this we can be completely certain.”
But can we? After all, this psychobabble is in complete contrast to what is being shown on the screen – that being a montage of photographs depicting Clay’s marriage to Renee and their subsequent, happy, affluent life together in sunny Arizona.
Once again Shinoda is being fooled by the universal disciplines of his profession. Aside from his inability to accept the fact that some pasts are worth burying, the good doctor also fails to realise it doesn’t necessarily matter if true happiness is based on a falsehood or not, just so long as it is found.
Unlike Antiochus “Tony” Wilson (Rock Hudson) in John Frankenheimer’s 1966 black and white movie Seconds – another work about switching identities which shares a number of minor similarities with Suture – Clay has absolutely no qualms about deserting his old life and leaving the “dirty rundown town in the middle of nowhere” behind him. In effect he has been given a second chance and he is not about to blow it. Besides, what right does Shinoda, the shrink who suffers from self-denial as much as anyone else, have to question this – particularly when it wasn’t Clay who instigated the initial crime?
As for Vincent, his attempt to switch identities turns out to be a backfire of epic proportions, particularly as he unequivocally proves that his scam had the potential to truly succeed.
*A description given by the writers/directors in Lacerations: The Making of Suture, which appears in the extras section of the Arrow blu-ray edition of the film.
Top 10 Films reviewed Suture on Blu-ray courtesy of Arrow Video.