Inspired by the paranoid visions of John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds, the desert noir of Detour and the black and white widescreen beauty of Hiroshi Teshigahara's The Face of Another and Woman of the Dunes, Suture is one of great feature debuts – by writer-directors David Siegel and Scott McGehee – and a truly unique piece of cinema.
The wealthy and self-assured Vincent (Michael Harris) meets his blue collar half-brother Clay (Dennis Haysbert) at their father's funeral and is struck by their similarity. He decides to murder Clay and take his identity, only Clay survives the assassination attempt with no memory and is mistaken for Vincent. The fact that Harris is white and Haysbert is black only complicates a film that probes into the nature of identity.
After viewing an early rough cut, Steven Soderbergh came on board as executive producer and enthusiastic patron. Suture went on to become a hit on the festival circuit, including Sundance where it deservedly won the award for Best Cinematography.
The plot of the very arty 1993 thriller 'Suture' is built off a classically Hitchcockian premise. Co-writers/directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel have a lot of fun paying homage to the master by shooting their film in stark black-and-white and staging the type of meticulously-constructed suspense set-pieces Hitchcock perfected. At the same time, they manage to spin both the story and its execution off in their own very weird and fascinating directions.
Having only recently learned of each other's existence, half-brothers Vincent and Clay meet for the first time after their father's death. The brothers share a striking physical resemblance, enough so that they could easily be mistaken as twins. Despite inviting Clay to stay with him for the weekend, Vincent treats his brother coldly and almost immediately makes excuses to leave town on a sudden business trip. In short order, we'll learn that Vincent has ulterior motives for wanting Clay to stay at his house, drive his car, and (at his insistence) even wear his clothes. Deeply in debt and under suspicion for killing their father, Vincent plans to fake his own death by murdering Clay. Since no one knows that he even has a brother, much less one who looks identical to him, everyone will assume the body is his. It would be the perfect crime… if only Clay didn't live.
Clay miraculously survives a car bomb that Vincent set for him, but suffers amnesia due to the head trauma. Believing himself to be Vincent, he spends the bulk of the film piecing together the clues to his attempted murder and discovering the truth of his real identity.
Memory loss, mistaken identity, an innocent man wrongly accused of someone else's crime… these are all well-worn tropes of the mystery/suspense genre. Where Siegel and McGehee twist the formula in daring ways is by casting Clay and Vincent, the lookalike brothers, with a black man and a white man respectively. In fact, to the audience, they look nothing alike at all, but no one in the movie can see or understand that. To every character they interact with, they are identical. Badly disfigured in the explosion, Clay's face must be reconstructed by surgeons using only photos of Vincent. In one of the movie's most amusing scenes, Clay's doctor describes his narrow nose and thin lips, in clear contradiction to what we see on screen.
Allowing the audience to see something so blatant that the characters in the movie cannot is an intriguing metaphysical twist. By its nature, this device removes viewers from total involvement in the story and forces them to examine its meanings. The movie is less about race than it is about identity, but leaves itself open to multiple readings. This could devolve into pretentiousness, but the directors cleverly wrap their philosophical musings with the interesting thriller plot and some subtle humor.
The film is heavy with on-the-nose symbolism and Freudian psychoanalysis. The black-and-white photography bluntly emphasizes the theme. Much of this is comically simplified and flirts with parody. The hero's name being Clay is hardly incidental, and his doctor is actually called Renee Descartes. In a running subplot, Clay visits a psychologist to help regain his memory. The doctor insists that analysis of his dreams will unlock his subconscious, and spells out their symbolism with an explicit cause-and-effect relationship to the film's plot. This seems ridiculous at first and his results often run contrary to what we know of the case. Then, as the story progresses, they fall into place. It's a delicate balance, but the filmmakers pull it off.
'Suture' was a low-budget movie with no major stars. Lead actor Dennis Haysbert had a memorable supporting role in 'Major League' but wouldn't achieve greater fame for several more years. At the time, the biggest name in the cast was Mel Harris from 'Thirtysomething'. That's not the kind of star power that sells tickets. Being made right in the middle of the 1990s indie boom proved to be both a blessing – in that up-and-coming filmmaker Steven Soderbergh liked what he saw of a rough cut and signed on as Executive Producer to secure financing for completion – and a curse, in that the movie was ultimately lost in a sea of other quirky indies at art film theaters and was forgotten quickly.
Even if a box office disappointment, the artistic strength of the film allowed McGehee and Siegel to collaborate together on a few others, including a pretty interesting thriller with Tilda Swinton called 'The Deep End'. Unlike their friend and producer Soderbergh, however, they never broke out as auteurs. Nevertheless, 'Suture' remains an intriguing and unusual movie worthy of repeated viewings.
As one of the small handful of people who actually saw 'Suture' in the theater in 1993, I feared that the movie would be lost to obscurity. MGM put out a crummy non-anamorphic letterbox DVD in 2001, which I doubt sold terribly well, and showed no interest in revisiting it afterwards. Fortunately, Arrow Video has come to the rescue with a new Blu-ray edition that treats the film like the cult classic it never became.
The 2-disc set contains both a newly remastered Blu-ray and DVD. The discs are stored in a clear keepcase with reversible cover art. Also inside the case is a booklet with two essays about the film and some production notes from the directors.
Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel made the bold decision to photograph 'Suture' in full 2.35:1 widescreen black-and-white, something that had only rarely been done for decades and is still uncommon today. (Even 'Schindler's List' settled for a narrower 1.85:1 aspect ratio.) Although shot using the Super 35 film format, which means that extra height image is available on the camera negative, the film has a very artful sense of symmetrical composition. Any alteration to the intended visual design would spoil its effectiveness.
According to the liner notes in the accompanying booklet, the Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is sourced from a new 4k film scan and was approved by both directors. Needless to say, it's a leaps-and-bounds improvement over MGM's old non-anamorphic DVD. The 2.35:1 image has excellent detail and nice gray scale. The contrast is gleaming bright in some scenes with more noir-ish shadows in others. Both appear accurate.
The film is also heavily grainy, in both bright scenes and dark. While this may be deliberate and does contribute to the arty mood of the piece, the grain is sometimes distractingly noisy. Although Blu-ray fans may cringe at the suggestion, I think a small amount of noise reduction might have been appropriate and would help to make the transfer look more like a quality theatrical print, even if it meant a trade-off in losing some picture detail.
The liner notes also explain the presence of vertical banding artifacts in some scenes, which resulted from damage on the film negative. Apparently, this happened during the production and has always been part of the movie, but was harder to see in lower-resolution video formats. Even here, it's faint and barely distracting. It's really only an issue if you make a point of looking for it. The Arrow restoration team tried a few different techniques to digitally remove the banding but couldn't find anything satisfactory. After consulting with the filmmakers, a decision was made to leave it be.
Although not perfect, 'Suture' is a very visually striking film and the Blu-ray does it justice.
Released theatrically in Dolby Stereo, the movie's soundtrack is encoded on disc in uncompressed PCM 2.0 format. The mix has strong stereo separation across the front channels and, when decoded using the Dolby Surround Upmixer feature in my receiver, a decent amount of surround bleed to the rear channels. Ambient sounds are dispersed effectively.
For a stereo mix of a low-budget indie film from the 1990s, the track has surprisingly good dynamic range. This is no rollercoaster action movie soundtrack, but it has at least one bassy explosion and a couple of startling gunshots. The clangy musical score also has nice breadth, depth and fidelity. Dialogue is crisp and intelligible, though some of the ADR work calls attention to itself.
Arrow has assembled a few new bonus features. This is another big improvement over the MGM DVD, which only had a trailer.
'Suture' may be an obscure art film from the early 1990s, but it's one I've remembered vividly since first seeing. I'm thrilled to finally get a quality high-def edition, lovingly restored and gifted with some interesting bonus features. Arrow Video has bestowed a Criterion-level treatment on this almost-forgotten but fascinating movie.