The Two Faces of Suture
By José Teodoro
Driven by a striking lead performance and a bold and unusual approach to race, the noirish first feature by filmmaking duo David Siegel and Scott McGehee recalls a time when sharp, inventive indie output wasn’t an exception to the rule.
All amnesia stories are identity stories. Amnesia may be a beloved MacGuffin, an at best semi-plausible plot device road-tested in countless thrillers covering the span of cinema history, but its more meaningful purpose is ontological, interior, existential. Its implicit queries are all the essential ones. Who am I? How did I get here? What am I responsible for? Can I start anew? In Suture (1993), writer/directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s feature debut and an exceedingly knotty take on the notion of physiognomy as destiny, a mischievous act of color-blind casting extends its protagonist’s amnesia to, in a sense, the entire diegesis: the film transpires in a world in which either no one seems cognizant of racial difference or racial difference is so fully integrated into the collective psyche that race has been, somehow, forgotten.
Suture’s plot hinges on the ostensible resemblance between two nearly identical long-lost half-brothers, one Black (Dennis Haysbert) and one white (Michael Harris), the former being the only Black person in the film and his Blackness seemingly registering with no one. The Black man has his appearance described to him by other characters in granular detail, and the descriptions always exactly match that of the white man. What’s more, the Black man, whose name is Clay, is working-class, with a warm, down-to-earth energy, a kind face, generous features, and a broad, athletic body; while the white man, whose name is Vince, is fantastically wealthy, dead behind the eyes, vampire-slim, and regal in a gaunt kind of way, with a receding hairline framing a long, lizard-like visage. He talks just like a super villain. Again: everyone agrees that Clay looks just like Vince.
Having murdered their father, Vince attempts to fake his death by blowing up his own car with Clay inside. Clay survives the explosion but sustains damage to his voice and face and loses an eye, along with his memory. Much of Suture concerns Clay’s attempt to recover his sense of selfhood with the help of psychologist Dr. Max Shinoda (Sab Shimono), Vince’s mother Alice (Dina Merrill), and the ridiculously named Dr. Renee Descartes (Mel Harris), a cool, comely, self-assured plastic surgeon who likes to shoot moving targets for relaxation. Over the course of Clay’s rehabilitation, Renee develops feelings for him, all the while believing him to be Vince, a everyone does. From the moment he wakes from his accident, Clay—his very moniker alludes to his moldable psyche—is at the mercy of those claiming to enable the reconstruction of his past. His psychological impairment allows others, however well-intended, to undermine his agency constantly: at one point Alice delivers him a proto-Rumsfeldian riddle: “You don’t know what you need to know.” Yet no one in this film knows what they need to know—no one even knows the dude is Black! Or do they know, but they’re just not telling him? What alternate post-racial dimension is this? Is it you, the viewer, who’s seeing things? Who exactly is gaslighting whom?
There are myriad ways to read race in Suture, though none feel entirely complete. The role of race is exclusively a matter of casting and is entirely left for the audience to contend with.
A Black man is on the hook for crimes committed by a white man, and because he has a conscience but no memory, he also assumes the accompanying guilt. A Black man in a film full of non-Black people is denied not only a history but also recognition of his own Blackness. He’s a man without a past, both personal and cultural. We, the audience, both individually and collectively, are implicated utterly in how race is read into the film’s every scene, especially those involving crime, class, psychological treatment, and miscegenation. There are myriad ways to read race in Suture, though none feel entirely complete. The role of race is exclusively a matter of casting and is entirely left for the audience to contend with. To dismiss the film’s race-blind conceit as a gimmick fails to reckon with the gimmick’s consequences. Though plastic surgery and/or tricksy casting are key features in identity-fraught films as diverse as Dark Passage, Eyes Without a Face, The Face of Another, and That Obscure Object of Desire, I don’t believe there’s ever been another film in which these two elements are combined in such a baffling, provocative, or, one might argue, reckless manner.
Since the racial politics of Suture are 100 percent meta, style and its signifiers are thrust into the foreground. The film is pure postmodernism: a recalibration of the wrong-man movie, a neo-noir not only on account of its post-noir vintage, and not only in its appropriation of recognizable tropes or elements of audiovisual high style, but also, and most notably, in its status as a work that could not exist without its stew of reference points. Shadow legs climb shadow stairs. A single image frames only a torso, a hand, a gun. Doctors are briefed in an austere chamber that looks like an installation assembled by an artist whose medium is the X-ray. A shrink’s office is decorated with colossal paintings of Rorschach tests. There is a truly remarkable sequence in which close-ups of Renee’s pale, slim hands caressing Clay’s dark, broad chest dissolve into X-rays of that same chest, as though the good doctor’s sensual touch is a method of apprehending Clay’s internal world. The mise-en-scène is uniformly spare and angular: Vince’s luxury home, with its bizarre mezzanine, was actually a vacant savings-and-loan office. The film’s self-awareness of its buried racial dynamics is alluded to in the use of high-contrast black-and-white cinematography, for which DP Greg Gardiner won an award at Sundance. Do the characters ever say where they are? I can’t recall. But if you ask me where Suture takes place, I would have to answer that it takes place in film noir. (As it happens, the film was shot in and around Phoenix, the city Marion Crane tries to forget in Psycho.)
Suture’s most compelling motif concerns the myriad ways in which our sense of self or subjective experience is vulnerable to suggestion. Alice gifts Clay a mirror only after spending countless hours telling him whom he’s supposed to be. In early scenes, Vince twice tells Clay that they look almost identical, speaking in a flat, measured cadence, as though he’s trying to hypnotize him. The detective hoping to prove Vince/Clay is a murderer is constantly, as a matter of routine, leading his key witness (the delightful character actor Fran Ryan, in what would be her final film role). “You probably saw this car,” he tells her, showing her a photograph of Vince’s car. Dreams prove to be vital tools in the resurrection of memory and Dr. Shinoda, the only other significant person of color in the film and, perhaps for that reason, the one we’re most inclined to trust, seems eager to uncover truths there. Clay’s dreams offer the only clues to his past that don’t come from someone else.
If Suture’s obscure schematics and total embrace of artifice make it sound academic, icy, or superficial, rest assured that at its core is a gorgeous performance by one of the most underappreciated screen actors of the last 30 years. Haysbert radiates warmth, empathy, and decency—is that why he hasn’t gotten enough juicy parts? That decency is put to brilliant use in Suture: Clay’s near-palpable horror at the possibility that he could be capable of doing things Vince is said to have done is precisely what gives his character such complexity. Haysbert is especially affecting in the scene where he’s informed of the details regarding his father’s murder. What seems most difficult for Clay to fathom is not so much the possibility of patricide, but rather the notion that he could have shot his father in the head three times. Perhaps any of us, denied access to our past, could imagine a scenario in which circumstances would force us to commit murder. But pulling the trigger three times? His voice reduced to a rasp, his body confined a hospital bed, his face almost completely obscured by bandages, Haysbert’s Clay nevertheless radiates despair and disbelief.
Siegel and McGehee managed to bring on Steven Soderbergh as executive producer, and Suture snagged plum programming slots at Telluride, Sundance, Cannes, and Toronto, an auspicious start for the then-young filmmaking duo, and for what has proved an interesting, if only intermittently distinctive, filmography. If anything in Siegel and McGehee’s debut has carried through to their strongest subsequent work, it’s their penchant for pop conceptualism, the nurturing of outstanding lead performances, and the queering of familiar genres—there are many ways in which these guys are the brethren of Todd Haynes, who would himself go on to use Haysbert in another act of loving revisionism in Far from Heaven—and narrative designs that, echoing the pair’s unusual status as a two-headed auteur, culminate in twinning or doubling.
The Deep End (2001) readapts The Blank Wall, the Elisabeth Sanxay Holding novel that served as source material for Max Ophuls’s 1949 thriller The Reckless Moment, but changes the gender of its adolescent-in-peril from female to male and the underworld threatening to consume him into a distinctly gay one. The film’s protagonist is the boy’s bourgeois hyper-competent mother (an exquisitely controlled Tilda Swinton), who must undertake a series of dangerous tasks to protect her child. Subtly, over the course of the film, queerness, erotic danger, and an unspoken sense of collusion intertwine to reinstate the bond between mother and son: by the end their bodies, long since bifurcated, are now, in some psychic sense, rejoined.
A 2012 adaptation of the 1897 Henry James novel, What Maisie Knew (2012), transposed to the present by screenwriters Carroll Cartwright and Nancy Doyne, depicts the tumultuous childhood of the titular 6-year-old, played by Onata Aprile, who gives a harrowing, rare child performance defined by active listening and the conveying of a highly contained interior life. Maisie becomes a pawn in a custody battle waged by her wealthy, flamboyantly narcissistic parents (Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan), each of whom winds up marrying a younger lover in a transparent bid for legal leverage. Yet the film’s elegantly structured plot has it so that these supposedly ornamental figures gradually eclipse and replace Maisie’s biological parents, becoming the child’s primary caregivers.
Films such as these—intelligent, adult, and iconoclastic, but also fundamentally middlebrow and middle-budgeted were an endangered species before the streaming sprawl or the exacerbations of the pandemic. Yet they remain an essential part of a healthy cultural ecology, films that look back, with equal parts affection and irreverence, as a way of inching the needle forward. Revisiting Suture more than 25 years after its debut serves as a reminder of a sort of daring yet accessible independent filmmaking that’s in danger of being forgotten. As Dr. Shinoda implores Clay, “Try and view this as an opportunity to explore your past.” •
José Teodoro is a freelance critic and playwright. Two of his plays involve amnesia.