Deceiver (1997) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Deceiver is part of the new genre of film that emerged in the 1990's - the noir fairy tale. Other well known films of this type would include Modern Romance, Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, and parts of Boogie Nights. The thing that makes these films different from the noir films of an earlier time is that they do not take place in the real world. No characters in them are recognizable human beings. No situations in them could actually occur. Characters don't live by our laws, or the common psychology of our race. They take place in an alternate universe of their own imagining. Like the written pulp fiction stories of earlier generations, they are always based on adolescent masturbatory fantasies.

In this case, two cops bring in a rich guy for questioning because his phone number was found on a dead hooker. They are giving him a polygraph, and they are saying things like "you wouldn't want to be convicted on the basis of one test, would you?" . Immediately, we are signaled that this is not the real world. This is a world in which failing the polygraph gets you sent up the river.  It is also a world in which there are no cell phones or even push-button phones. Everyone still has those old-fashioned rotary models. Yet the cars and video equipment are contemporary

The story is supposed to take place in Charleston, South Carolina, but that is just a string of three words. There is no attempt to make anyone in the film sound like they come from Charleston. Michael Rooker tried out a soft drawl for a sentence or two, then went back to his usual speech. Tim Roth did the official "Monty Python impersonating American guys" accent, which worked OK, I guess, because he was supposed to be a Princeton grad, and he might have picked up some unusual speech patterns in his Ivy league days. After all, Americans always ask me what country I am from, even though I was born and educated in the United States.

But the point is that it takes place at no special time, in no special place, on no special planet. Just not our world, nor our time. It is an alternate universe, and we can deduce it was intended that way, because the obvious presence of the rotary phones signals that it is a mythical time. That detail is not something that they could have done by accident.

Therefore we can't judge this by the usual standards of "Hey - that couldn't happen", or "that isn't real", or "how likely is that?". It is a fairy tale. Like all fairy tales, you can't measure it by its realism, only by its entertainment value.



I have to say it is pretty damned cool. Like The Usual Suspects, it is framed by a police interrogation, with the main story told in flashback. The suspect ends up having the police by the nuggets. You see, he's not an ordinary guy. He's a genius, and he's richer than God. Between his money and his smarts, he really gets these cops over a barrel. By the third day of the examination, he has them practically in tears, because he's researched every detail of their lives. They turn on the video to record his confession, and he confesses every crime THEY have committed in the past - all recorded on the department's tape. They try physical intimidation, and he kicks the shit out of them until several more policemen pull him off. By the final day, he has procured a video tape of the older officer having violent sex with the dead hooker!!

"Scoop, I get your point that it stretches the notion of coincidence that the arresting cop recently beat up the dead hooker on camera, but isn't it possible that it isn't a coincidence? Maybe the cop killed the girl and framed Roth?

No, not at all. Two reasons (1) the only available evidence pointed to Roth. He wasn't somebody they chose. His phone number was on the dead girl. (2) We know that Roth isn't being framed, because of other things which are spoilers if I reveal them. (This movie is good enough that you want to see how it all comes out.)

Once again, you can't just say "that bit about the arresting officer having beaten up the hooker on camera is stupid". Of course it's stupid. The question is - is it fun? Remember, it takes place in another world. In that world, assume everything is taped, assume whatever you like, what can I say? Sure, it isn't even likely that the cop knew the girl, let alone beat her up and screwed her, let alone on tape. But so what? Just go with it. This is the rich man's masturbatory fantasy. "Gee, if I was arrested, I could outsmart those stupid cops".

Roth consistently outwits them in other ways as well.  They ask him if he lies, he admits it, and when they start to turn that against him, he proves that the only way one can answer "do you lie" truthfully is to admit to lying, since anyone who denies lying has lied in doing so. Captain Kirk has taught us that it is not possible for humans to say "I always lie".  Neither can people say "I don't lie". Asking you whether you lie is just a cop trick. If you say you don't lie, that is obviously a lie in itself, therefore proving you are a liar, and also showing them that you are trying to stonewall. Everyone lies. But if you say you do lie, then that also proves you are a liar. You admitted it, didn't you? Once they get you to admit you are a liar, no matter which way you answer, then they badger you.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Full-screen format plus a widescreen 2.35 version

Although the coincidences are implausible, to say the least, I have to say that I enjoyed the game of cat and mouse. I thought the direction was stylish and inventive. It really did keep us guessing about who killed the girl, it held the tension, and it remained ambiguous even at the end, with both the cop and Roth seeming to be guilty. (I suppose that really is a possibility, for reasons which I can't reveal.)

One more thing. I never thought I would see a greater display of one-on-one overacting than Bill Shatner versus Montalban in Star Trek II, but I think Tim Roth and Michael Rooker were completely up to that standard. And you know what? I like both of those movies.  

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and a half stars. Ebert 2/4, Berardinelli 3/4, Apollo 66/100, 3/5

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary IMDb voters score it  6.3/10, Apollo votes 71/100
  • with their dollars: a BOMB. Total gross $545,000 on 211 screens. Gone within two weeks.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+.  Interesting noir. Derivative, but it held my attention, has some intelligent moments, and maintains tension despite basically being confined to a one-room set.

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