Most actors have honest faces; Tim Roth’s is gloriously dishonest. He’s one of the rare performers who can embody intelligence with an almost physical force, yet he isn’t handsome enough to be a conventional movie star, and his sallow, loutish mug seems to have been cast in permanent surly contemplation of its own imperfection. The sadly pensive eyes, the big, droopy, Ringo-esque schnozz, the mouth held tight with anger — it’s only natural that an actor this far from matinee-idol prettiness would take refuge in the sanctuary of his own deceptive powers. In Deceiver (MGM), an absorbingly crafty murder mystery written and directed by Jonas and Joshua Pate, Roth plays a brilliant pathological liar who’s suspected of cutting a prostitute in half, and the actor revels in the chance to create a personality that’s ghostly and layered, a man who’s inevitably faking you out at the moment you’re most sure you’re seeing into his heart.
Roth’s James Wayland is a dissipated, haughty, filthy-rich ne’er-do-well who is being given a polygraph examination by a couple of homicide cops — Michael Rooker as the stern, self-righteous Kennesaw and Chris Penn as the dim, trusting Braxton. Wayland’s phone number was found in the dead hooker’s pocket, and that’s the one piece of evidence linking him to the crime. If he’s innocent, though, why is he so fidgety about the lie-detector test? Or is the nervousness itself an act? Wayland turns out to have a taste for absinthe, with its eerie hallucinogenic powers, and he is also a “temporal-lobe epileptic” given to sanity-smashing fits. As the cops question him, the film keeps leaping into the past, detailing the lies Wayland told as a teenager and giving us glimpses of his enigmatic relationship with the prostitute, played by Renee Zellweger in a piquant small performance that lets vulnerability peer out from behind a sexy-glossy facade.
Part of an apparently swelling tide of sibling-team moviemakers, the Pate brothers have a flair for pace, for suggestive sleaze, and, most excitingly, for the kind of dialogue-propelled suspense that fueled the hard-boiled thrillers of the ’40s and ’50s. In Deceiver, though, they’ve also marshaled one too many narrative gambits. The film is constructed as a series of interlocking false bottoms, but sometimes there’s a thin line between cleverness and contrivance; the Pate brothers prove more than willing to step over it. Still, it’s energizing to see a thriller that suffers from an excess, rather than a paucity, of imaginative trickery. Like the creators of any effective murder mystery, the Pates, too, are good liars. No wonder they’ve made expert use of Roth, as a man who, guilty or not, will happily say anything to escape from himself. B