A Guy Thing
Too Many Actors Acting spoil an already tepid thriller
The most interesting thing about Sleuth, a remake of Joseph Mankiewicz's 1972 movie, is the symmetry involved in casting Michael Caine in a role he played opposite in the original, and Jude Law, who starred in a remake of Caine's breakout movie, Alfie, in the role the senior actor originated. It would feel gimmicky if not for how Caine devours his part as a cuckolded author with even more zeal than Laurence Olivier did 35 years ago. Law, who's screwing the author's wife, holds his own against the legend, too, as slimy and cunning as any of the characters in the author's thrillers. Unfortunately, this is all the praise the movie deserves.
Andrew Wyke (Caine) has hidden himself away in a country manor that Jane Austen's characters might have once danced through, but once you push past the exterior, you discover the interior has been gutted and turned into a bunker of sorts. Concrete, modern art, and laser beams create angles where there shouldn't be any, a futuristic world of shadows and dark secrets where someone who pens thrillers would probably be right at home. It's even fair to say Wyke's manor is a third character in this adaptation of Anthony Shaffer's two-character play. Into this cold, robotic place filled with hidden doors and surveillance cameras that capture every movement inside and out arrives Milo Tindle (Law); in the original, he was a hairdresser, but these days he's a nobody actor who Wyke is convinced is nothing more than a hairdresser. Tindle, it seems, is screwing Wyke's wife, and the new couple want Wyke to sign off on the divorce so they can marry. After much verbal sparring-dialogue so sharp that words fly like daggers-Wyke agrees, but only if Tindle steals a million-pound necklace from his safe. It would be an act, of course, to fool the insurance company, but this way Tindle would get the fence money for the necklace-a deal Wyke has already set up with an acquaintance-and Wyke would get some much-needed cash. Apparently, he's a wee bit broke.
This sounds good to Tindle, who agrees, only to realize all too late that Wyke is orchestrating his own real-life thriller. As Tindle crouches before Wyke's safe, Wyke shoots him in the chest. A week or so later, a rude, slovenly police investigator shows up and questions Wyke about the actor's disappearance while guzzling beer. The investigator appears to know something Wyke doesn't, namely that Wyke murdered Tindle. This comes as quite a surprise to Wyke, we assume because this arrogant man can't imagine ever being caught. Or, at least, that's what we're supposed to assume. The twist that soon arrives is no twist at all; the makeup job on the investigator is so bad that it's impossible not to tell it's Law behind it. In other words, it's Tindle, the actor, playing a police investigator-delivering the performance of his life to terrify Wyke, one more round in their psychological warfare.
This is where the original movie and Shaffer's play wrapped things up, but this re-imagination by director Kenneth Branagh and playwright Harold Pinter falls completely apart. Rather than go their separate ways, these two men, these two swinging cocks desperate to one-up the other in a final round of battle, begin a push-pull war of homoerotic seduction. Tindle plays coy but interested to the wealthy Wyke's offer for the actor to become his "traveling companion" around the world. Another way to put it: When men fight, it's a good deal like sex for them, so why not reduce the spoils to that? It doesn't work, though, and scenes of the characters trying to out-act each other grow increasingly and embarrassingly hammy.
Sleuth's demise is a tragedy unto itself, especially considering the talent involved, from the actors to the Nobel Prize-winning Pinter to the incredibly gifted Branagh, whose exceptional direction is probably most to blame. As odd as this might sound, Branagh outperforms the actors; his work behind the camera is so brilliant, so spot-on, that it's much easier to pay attention to what he's doing within the confines of Wyke's manor than the actual story. The actor and director might not have an actual role in the movie, but he's there in every scene.