Judge Jim Thomas has left several incriminating clues in this review. Pray that you find them.
Obey the Rules.
In 2007, Kenneth Branagh directed Michael Caine and Jude Law in a remake of the 1972 classic Sleuth. Apart from the stellar cast, the movie had two additional hooks: Caine, who had played Milo Tindle in the original, would this time play Andrew Wyke, the part played by Laurence Olivier. Secondly, the script was by playwright Harold Pinter (The French Lieutenant's Woman), who had recently won the Nobel Prize for literature. Despite the obscene amount of raw talent, Sleuth fared poorly both at the box office and with the critics. It's easy to see why; this is not an easy movie to sink your teeth into, particularly if you (as I do) have fond memories of the original film. But now is the time to set the past aside and determine if the movie's clues add up.
Facts of the Case
Milo Tindle (Jude Law, Alfie (2004)) has arrived at the home of best-selling author Andrew Wyke (Michael Caine, Batman Begins). Milo has been having an affair with Andrew's wife, and has come to convince Andrew to grant his wife a divorce. Andrew comments that Milo, a struggling actor, won't be able to keep his wife in the grand style to which she has become accustomed, and so he presents a second option: Milo will break into Andrew's house and steal £1,000,000 in jewels. Milo will have the money he needs, while Andrew will be free of his wife and will collect the insurance on the stolen jewels. Milo is apprehensive, but Andrew assures him that if Milo will just obey the rules of the game, everything will turn out just fine.
What Milo doesn't realize is that Andrew is playing a different game. In the middle of the "robbery," Andrew explains things: Andrew intends to kill Milo, telling the police that he caught Milo breaking into his house and killed him in self-defense. Shots are fired, and Milo's body slumps to the ground.
Three days later, a detective appears on Andrew's doorstep, inquiring about the whereabouts of Milo. The detective turns up clues that contradict Andrew's story. Can Andrew talk his way clear, or will he find himself caught up in an altogether different game?
(I have done my best to present this review to avoid giving away several major plot points; however, there may be enough details for a reader to put the pieces together on your own. Caveat lector.)
I'm not that familiar with Pinter's work. That point is up front because from everything I can determine 1. Pinter is something of an acquired taste, and 2. This movie appears to be quintessentially a Pinter piece. His work generally involves primal conflicts between people, people attempting to assert dominance over one another, like two wolves attempting to establish themselves as the alpha dog. Dialogue is of supreme importance in Pinter—more specifically, the ambiguity of the spoken word. Cadences, inflections, and long pauses all convey more meaning than the words themselves, making every statement, every gesture an interpretive challenge for the listener. This semantic gamesmanship is engaged from the moment Milo drives up to Andrew's house. Branagh places the camera atop the house, pointing straight down at the entranceway. Andrew's car is parked at a 45-degree angle to the house; Milo parks at an opposite 45-degree angle, creating a strikingly symmetrical shot. One problem, though: Milo's car is smaller; Andrew notes that his is bigger almost immediately, initiating what becomes the ultimate game of cockmanship.
There's just one problem. Both Andrew and Milo are complete and utter bastards. Neither is in the least bit likable, making it virtually impossible to sympathize with either. Long before he's revealed as homicidal, Andrew is shown as an egomaniacal control freak. Milo, though he seems pleasant enough at first, is quickly revealed as someone who, like Andrew, will do anything or anyone to get what he wants, so it's not as though either one has a claim to any moral high ground. The acting is first-rate—though perhaps at times Law goes a little too over the top—but after a while one suspects that the best resolution here would be for the two men to kill each other, leaving Margarite to run off with the investigating detective.
Films with unlikable leads have worked before. In this case, though, Branagh's direction, though inventive, keeps the audience at a distance. Branagh clearly spent a lot of time working out his direction for the film; because almost all of the main action occurs within the house, Branagh goes to excessive lengths to avoid repeating camera angles. To an extent, he's successful—his off-kilter shots keep us just as unsettled as the characters on screen—but that success comes at a price; too often the camerawork draws attention to itself, distracting from the action and dialogue. That initial shot looking down on the entranceway eventually turns into a pan down through the roof and into the house proper, a shot that has David Fincher's Panic Room written all over it; that's the sort of "Look at me" move that is the last thing a movie like this needs. The direction may well be the film's greatest weakness.
There's a fairly major departure from the original story in that a strong homosexual element is introduced. Most critics have commented on it, saying that they weren't sure if that element was really needed. To my mind, that's not the issue; the real issue is whether it works. The foundations for the development are laid early on, and it plays out like an organic extension of the plot, becoming yet another game: Is Andrew really attracted to Milo, or has he transformed the proceedings into a grotesque version of Truth or Dare?
Extras are pretty good. There are two separate commentaries—one with Branagh and Caine, and one with Law. The Branagh/Caine track is solid, offering a lot of information on the production, the sort of things that highlight the nuances of the film. Branagh frequently asks Caine specifics about how he approached specific scenes, or acting in general. While the commentaries help you appreciate the technical skill everyone brings to the party, they don't overcome the film's inherent problems. The Law commentary is a little drier, but still has some good stuff. Law also produced the movie, so there's a lot more in the way of background and production information. Still, would a track with all three have been so hard to do?
The making-of featurette is pretty good, particularly when it discusses Pinter; Caine offers some specific examples of how and why Pinter's dialogue works. To an extent, Pinter's dialog is akin to David Mamet's in that on the page, it looks like it can't possibly work, but it positively sings in performance.
There's also a brief piece on makeup, which plays a critical role in the film. That one piece deserved a little bit more development, possibly showing the application of the various pieces (I won't say anything else so as not to spoil some integral plot points). As it stands, it looks as though it was a last-minute idea thrown together post-haste.
Technically, the disc is solid. The complex lighting scheme comes across well, from the stark whites and blacks to the colors and shadows created by the house's lighting system. There is a notable hiccup in the film at about the 1:00 hour mark; presumably a layer change. It's more noticeable than most because it occurs at a pivotal moment in the story. Someone must have fallen asleep at the quality control switch. The 5.1 audio mix isn't really given much to do, but it does reproduce Patrick Doyle's understated yet ominous score.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Michael Caine is freaking brilliant in this movie. There is a sublime beauty in scenes when he simply looks at the current situation. We can almost see what's going on beneath the surface—but at the last minute, we refrain, lest we see ourselves in Andrew's quietly psychotic visage. Because make no mistake—this Andrew is batshit crazy. Olivier approached Andrew as dangerously eccentric; Caine however, sees Andrew as afflicted with "morbid jealousy," a condition linked to many crimes of passion. The class snobbery that permeated Olivier's performance is abandoned, reducing the conflict to its primal essence. Milo has dared to take that which belongs to Andrew; therefore Andrew must break him (the Pinter-esque alpha dog conflict is thrown into stark relief in that light). Caine wanted to portray Andrew so that the audience, seeing how his jealousy has destroyed him, would have an almost cathartic reaction to Andrew's bile. In that regard, the character becomes very similar to a character in a play of Anthony Shaffer's twin brother Peter—the Salieri of Amadeus. However, both that play and the movie let us identify with Salieri before he begins his crusade against God; that identification is critical in achieving the cathartic effect. The commentaries mention that a few scenes were shot with Margarite, Andrew's wife, but they were discarded. I've no idea how those scenes worked (they are, sadly, not included on the disc), but they might have helped us better identify with Andrew.
One bit of business speaks volumes about Andrew: As he and Milo come into the house, Andrew walks towards some bottles, asking Milo what he would like to drink. "Scotch," Milo replies. Andrew picks up the single glass by the bottles—a glass which has already been filled with Scotch. The implication is that Andrew already knows everything there is to know about Milo; from this moment on, he's simply toying with him as a cat plays with a mouse.
Finally, a word must be said about Andrew's house. Production Designer Tim Harvey creates a massive monument to Andrew's ego—complete with a room in which an entire wall is a billboard, with a giant headshot of Andrew and a list of all of all his novels. A quote on the billboard perhaps offers a tiny hint of foreshadowing: "The Master of Menace!" The safe in Andrew's bedroom is hidden behind an aquarium; the aquarium is built like a vertical maze, so that the fish has to navigate through to get food. These things do not speak well of Andrew. In addition, the house is wired up with a sophisticated surveillance system. Cameras linked to motion detectors riddle the house, with flat panels scattered around the house displaying the feeds. Branagh uses these cameras as a means of varying the shot, showing us a scene from a display rather than directly. And there lies a problem. Why is Milo so stupid as to think that a robbery is going to be successful? Andrew may be telling the truth when he says that the skylight through which Milo will enter is a blind spot—but Milo still has to go through the rest of the house, past many, many cameras, to get to the safe. Andrew can't just turn off the cameras, as that would raise even the dimmest insurance adjustor's suspicions.
Sleuth is fascinating, but I've yet to determine if it's because it's a great movie or because it could have been a great movie. Certainly it is a rich movie, with performances so nuanced that multiple viewings reveal new layers in the characters. But ultimately, this remake is somewhat…detached. The original movie had a sense of playfulness that is absent in the remake. I'm not entirely sure if that's a flaw or not, but it does make it substantially harder to become invested in the proceedings. While the court acknowledges and appreciates the consummate skill of all involved, it cannot help but wonder if this script might have been better served on stage, where the audience would not have to contend with such complicated shots, but could rather focus on the dialogue.
The film's tagline is deceptive: "Obey the Rules," a mantra spoken by Andrew on several occasions. There's a slight catch, though; you can't obey the rules if you don't know what the game is. Perhaps a better tagline would be "What games are you playing?"
Although Sleuth does many things well, Kenneth Branagh's direction makes the end result less than the sum of its parts. All the same, though, I can't get the damned thing out of my head. The court hereby finds the defendant guilty of making the movie more visually complicated than it needed to be, and sentences the defendant to time served.
Court is adjourned.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Kenneth Branagh and Michael Caine
Review content copyright © 2008 Jim Thomas; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.