In this seminal American independent film, a black man takes on the identity of his ‘identical’ white twin brother.
Sampling a single frame from any of the features directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel offers evidence of the striking visual aesthetic that defines their work. A thrilling synthesis of composition, editing and design (visual and aural), Suture (1993), followed by The Deep End (a carefully calibrated update of Max Ophüls’s The Reckless Moment that gave Tilda Swinton one of her first American roles in 2001) and Bee Season (2005), has seen them imprint their indelible signature style on contemporary American filmmaking. Completed under the aegis of a major studio, Bee Season was a move up in division, but it was vastly under-appreciated on release, and so it is perhaps little surprise that McGehee and Siegel have returned to independent production with the as-yet-to-be-released Uncertainty, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2008.
Introduced by McGehee’s sister Kelly, who was studying at the San Francisco Art Institute alongside Siegel, Scott and David bonded over movies and discussed a possible collaboration. Neither had attended film school (McGehee was studying for a PhD in Japanese Film History at UC Berkeley; Siegel was doing an MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design), but with Kelly as production designer the pair completed a number of short films before deciding to tackle a feature. Audacious enough in its conception stage to attract the attention of Steven Soderbergh, who came on board as an executive producer, the witty and supremely confident Suture made an immediate impact on the American independent landscape. When it was originally released in the UK at the Institute of Contemporary Arts I vividly recall going to see the film seven consecutive nights in a row. Some 16 years later, its potency and originality remain undimmed.
Despite having met his identical half-brother Clay (Dennis Haysbert, today best known as the pre-Obama black American president in 24) just once – at their murdered father’s funeral – wealthy sophisticate Vincent (Michael Harris) invites his blue-collar sibling to stay with him in Phoenix, Arizona. As this is ostensibly a bonding exercise, Clay is dismayed to learn upon arrival that a business trip necessitates Vincent’s immediate attention. After dropping his brother at the airport, Clay is involved in a horrific car explosion that leaves his face burned beyond recognition, his memory erased and Vincent’s desirable Rolls Royce a write-off. With the aid of a psychoanalyst and a leading plastic surgeon, Clay is slowly pieced back together. Unfortunately, he’s reconstructed as Vincent, now the primary suspect in his father’s death.
Suture is a sophisticated, post-modern affair borrowing freely from the B-movie thriller, the American avant-garde and the film noir, including stylised chiaroscuro lighting, a complex flashback structure and the focus upon a moral landscape predicated on corruption and greed. The film nonetheless brings its own intoxicating embellishments to the Hitchcockian mix (1945’s Spellbound, with its Salvador Dalí-designed dream sequences, is an obvious and acknowledged influence). An intelligent analysis of identity, class, the Lacanian duality of mind and body and the physical and mental means by which we define ourselves, Suture features at its core compelling performances from Harris, who is slight and white, and Haysbert, muscular and black. ‘Our physical resemblance is striking’, remarks Vincent in a typically deadpan moment. The naming of a character after the philosopher Descartes and the use of ‘Ring of Fire’ (both Johnny Cash and Tom Jones versions appear) as a charred Clay is transported to surgery offer further evidence of the mischievous humour of the filmmakers – who both briefly appear as gurney operators – amidst the film’s lightly and comfortably worn highbrow tendencies.
Masterly shot in austere black and white by Greg Gardiner (who won an award for the cinematography at Sundance in 1994) and boasting Kelly McGehee’s stunning production design (the inventive use of modish 60s office interiors evokes Godard’s Alphaville), Suture is also significant in its compositional assurance and positioning of characters in relation to objects and buildings. The Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino (The Consequences of Love, The Family Friend and Il Divo) would perhaps be the closest contemporary point of reference. The final face-off between Vincent and Clay, shot from high above in an ornate bathroom, an image that became the film’s enticing poster, is especially memorable. The film is also remarkable for its disjunctive editing and the overlapping use of sound from one scene to another, techniques that reference the pioneering work of the late 60s theorist Jean-Pierre Oudart, who drew parallels between the psychic processes of subjectivity and the structuring language of cinema.
Relatively rarely seen in recent years due to restricted availability, Suture is finally available on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK in a brand new 4k restoration so that first-time viewers and those who were seduced by its innumerable pleasures back in 1993 can now be reminded of the film’s originality and vitality.
Watch a clip from Suture: