The Devolution of Atom Egoyan

Where the Truth Lies

On March 24, 2006, deeply distressed by the indefensible horror that is Where the Truth Lies, I stopped being an Atom Egoyan apologist.

I found each of the Canadian writer/director’s nine previous feature films compelling, thoughtful, thorough, dense, and invigorating. I adore several of his movies, but even his lesser work — such as the overly circuitous and easily misread Ararat — brims with curiosity and ideas.

And now comes a work whose very title, with its cheesy double meaning, portends bad, blunt things. (In fairness, it comes from author Rupert Holmes, on whose novel Egoyan based his screenplay. But still ... .)

The film is better on reflection than in the watching, but that doesn’t make it remotely good. If it works at all, it’s as an act of self-parody, in which the filmmaker’s heady concerns are consumed by the tripe of his ostensible subject matter. Exotica might have been a similar disaster if it had focused more on the vocation of the stripper lead character.

Kevin Bacon is Lanny Morris and Colin Firth is Vince Collins, and together they’re a comedy team in the 1950s. After a polio telethon, the naked, dead body of a young woman is found in a bathtub in their hotel suite. The girl was an aspiring reporter who had been planning to interview the pair. Although the performers have alibis, their partnership disintegrates.

Fifteen years later, a young female journalist (Alison Lohman) is hell-bent on finding out the truth. Sex, drugs, one grand mustache, and dual voice-over narration ensue. (And I won’t delve into Egoyan’s increasingly obvious obsession with young female flesh beyond noting it.)

What’s most clearly wrong in Where the Truth Lies is that Egoyan has put his standard inquiry into identity, fractured narrative, and perspective in the service of a damned period murder mystery. In which the butler-equivalent did it. (Oh dear. Have I said too much?)

There’s nothing inherently evil about a murder mystery, but it’s a genre that rarely lends itself to ambiguity and nuance, two things that have distinguished Egoyan’s career to this point. Somebody killed somebody else, and the thrust of the story is figuring out who did it. In this way, that groaningly obvious title is itself a lie, because its duality promises a contradiction that’s never satisfyingly explored; whatever else is going on in the film, its primary business is still finding out the murderer’s identity.

And yet ... as in Ararat, the director is being coy, talking around what he wants to say. Where the Truth Lies isn’t merely a murder mystery, of course, and the “truth” of the killing has little to do with the two performers’ relationship, which one imagines is Egoyan’s actual interest.

But that bond is sketchy at best. One scene — involving the reaction of Firth’s character to his partner being called a “kike” by a heckler — is meant as proof of their closeness and devotion. But it’s so isolated — and so overshadowed by everything else in the film — that it hardly registers.

There is a lovely moment in that sequence, when Bacon’s character sees blood on Firth’s cheek, and kisses him to get it off before the club audience can notice it.

Yet that bit is later assigned far greater weight than it can bear. Where the Truth Lies suggests, vaguely, that it was not the girl’s murder that broke up Morris and Collins but a confused sexual encounter.

An argument can be made that because the film is cast as an inquiry, its failure to establish clear cause-and-effect relationships or easy answers is its purpose; the journalist, with access only to the narrative surface, would be unable to uncover any genuine “truth” in this story. In this formulation, Egoyan would be saying that the truth lies within these two men and cannot be excavated, let alone understood. This analysis might also posit that the movie is a commentary on our fixation with celebrities, and the futility of trying to know them in any meaningful way.

Yet this agnostic reasoning doesn’t jibe with a career spent peeling away people’s protective layers and uncovering their souls. Every Egoyan movie to this point has concerned itself with the process of knowing, with the idea that we can learn what drives people to behave the way they do. Either the writer/director has decided he’s been wrong all these years and movies, or he’s made a truly shitty picture. I’m going with the latter.

But it’s not just a hackneyed vehicle or muddled message that makes the movie so awful. Where the Truth Lies has an overbearing score and an almost fetishistic focus on period details — the length of sideburns, the mechanics of airplane meals in first class. These are minor elements, but they contribute to a newfound emphasis on the artifice of movies; they show how inept Egoyan is at integrating requisite components into warhorse movie forms — the period picture, for instance, and the murder mystery. Egoyan cannot let the score merely exist or gently contribute to feeling, in other words; he must instead make the music comment on itself — and, seemingly, the banality of the idea of the score — by being impossible to ignore.

Egoyan’s work, in terms of both writing and movie-making, had previously seemed spare, elegant, and intimate, even as his structural trickery sometimes threatened to overwhelm it. When they dealt with aberrant behavior, the films were still grounded and real. At their most self-important, they were perceptive and clear-eyed.

No more. Where the Truth Lies is strong evidence that Egoyan’s talents have devolved to an embarrassing degree.

The austerity and narrative elegance yielded following The Sweet Hereafter — with the gaudy colors of Felicia’s Journey, the clumsy film-within-the-film sections of Ararat, and the nostalgic period look here.

And investigation into human nature has never before been this literal or crude in Egoyan’s movies. It’s certainly a constant theme personified in the films and expressed through structure. His works have frequently featured characters whose job includes detection (customs officers, an attorney), but their tasks are specific, and the people themselves tend to be willfully blind to subtleties such as motive and personality. More critically, investigation is always implicit and understood with Egoyan in the way the stories are broken apart and reassembled. Yet here a journalist takes a role that the author had gracefully and unobtrusively played before. It’s as if Egoyan has lost his faith in the intelligence of his audience.

Perhaps most importantly, the filmmaker has expanded his scope and no longer seems interested in common emotional ground. Felicia’s Journey is about a serial killer. In Ararat, the subjects include genocide and big-budget film-making. Where the Truth Lies concerns the trappings of celebrity. Egoyan’s movies used to be marked by their access to small, private moments; now he seems obsessed with grander gestures and bigger characters. While he once wrote and directed with precision and purpose, like a surgeon, he now swings a hammer.

2046

I appear to be virtually alone among critics in hating Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046.

The odd thing is that I can read their words, understand them, and appreciate their appreciation of the film. I get it. Fundamentally, though, I think the commentary on 2046 is far better than the movie itself.

A writer treats women badly — mere toys to be played with. He inserts them in his erotic stories. And, after he’s discarded them, he remembers and regrets.

This relatively straightforward plot is presented with such convolution that, like 21 Grams, it’s suffocated by the style. The result is a movie that has no emotional content yet is theoretically all about emotions — love, lust, yearning, despair, loss.

It is gorgeous to look at, with its studies of light, the human face, and foreplay. Yet without any investment in character, story, or feeling, 2046 ends up tedious beyond belief — a nearly agonizing experience.

My wife offered a five-word review that captures the essence of 2046: “This movie is very green.” If only the film had been so succinct.

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