I’ve really liked this film ever since its theatrical release. It didn’t get good reviews, and was a bomb taking in only $17 million out of its $25 million budget. It continues to show me that while I may love erotic thrillers, they are rarely marketable to a mass audience. However, the sexual aspects of this film are a backdrop for what I view as a fairly solid twisting thriller. What engages me about Deception are the performances of its leads in Hugh Jackman, Ewan McGregor, and Michelle Williams, and the rich, stunning neo noir cinematography by Danté Spinotti. The latter is no surprise as he has shot many Michael Mann films including Manhunter and Heat. I find Deception to be an intriguing thriller that is heavily aided by that striking visual atmosphere, and some smart directing from Marcel Langenegger.
Jonathan McQuarry (Ewan McGregor) is an auditor in Manhattan, moving from office to office checking the books of various companies. While working late, a smooth, well-dressed lawyer named Wyatt Bose (Hugh Jackman) chats Jonathan up, offers him a joint, and soon they’re pals. Jonathan is a very lowly, modest man, but Wyatt soon opens him up to a world of pleasurable desires and sexual confidence. When their cell phones are accidentally swapped, Jonathan answers Wyatt’s phone to a series of women asking if he’s free tonight. He soon discovers it’s a sex club where busy, powerful people meet each other anonymously in hotels for discrete encounters. However, he fully breaks all the rules when he falls for one of the club members, whom he knows only as “S” (Michelle Williams), whom he’s also seen on a subway. Yet, during an intimate night out, she goes missing, patterns emerge, and Jonathan faces demands involving violence, murder, treachery, and a large sum of money.
An excellent neo noir tone of mystery and isolation is struck right from the beginning with the quiet and moody opening title sequence. It’s just Jonathan sitting in a conference room, alone, late at night, but the vibe just sinks in very deeply to establish his isolated nature. He’s isolated from the world around him, always removed from the activity of the offices he’s working at, and has no real social life to speak of. The film is very regularly set in at nighttime inside clubs, hotels, offices, taxicabs, and elsewhere allowing for that dark, subversive tone to seep in. However, even the daytime scenes have a certain drained quality that maintain that atmosphere. The visual tone eases up just enough in those moments allowing you to not get bogged down by the visual darkness. What we get, overall, is a multi-toned film that moves from that lonely isolation to a lively and exciting world that is full of mysterious passion, but then, segues into a very heartfelt romantic connection that becomes the emotionally motivating element of the story. From there, it delves fully into the tense and threatening first, main twist of the film where our villain reveals his true colors.
Within only fifteen minutes, the film establishes a strong relationship between Jonathan and Wyatt. It hits all the right beats fleshing out their personalities with quick, substantive exchanges, and showing us how Wyatt just pushes Jonathan out far enough to take some chances. He opens Jonathan’s mind to being outgoing and perceiving the pleasures that one can indulge in, when the opportunities arise. This then sets Jonathan off on his own seductive, sexually charged encounters that really liven up his life. The sex and nudity are never raunchy. Everything has a beauty, vigor, and sensual quality that is very elegant and classy. We are given context for this anonymous sex club as it is something for the excessively busy successful person to gain “intimacy without intricacy,” as Charlotte Ramplings’ Wall Street Belle states to Jonathan. Still, for someone like Maggie Q’s Tina, there’s a compulsion to the danger of being with someone mysterious and anonymous. It has an attraction and outlet for almost anyone, and for Jonathan, it builds a more confident man. However, as I said, the erotic elements are merely a backdrop, a facilitating plot element that surrounds the film, but never dominates it. They tie directly back into the plot regularly, and the sex scenes are never gratuitous. They all serve a purpose towards the development of the story or characters. Most erotic thrillers use sex scenes as frivolously as many lower grade action films use action sequences. When they have relevance to the story, they work, but when they are just there to fill the skin quota, that’s when you’ve got a late night Skinemax flick. Deception surely and thankfully fits into the former category.
Furthermore, there is nothing wasted in the run time of this film. The pace is tight with an even rhythm and stellar editing. The plot develops very organically, and progresses without a hitch. It’s never too brisk to sacrifice character, but never lags at the cost of the story. Every aspect of the characters and plot fit in snugly, and propel the narrative forward in every scene. The filmmakers knew how far to weave their plot threads, and never stretched them out or rushed through anything. It’s all evenly balanced to achieve the right pace. The story is rather lean, and maybe some would prefer a little more proverbial meat on the bone of the script. However, it really didn’t require or demand more. What we are given works very well giving us enough substance to make this a full narrative, and avoiding any over complicated indulgences or dragged out sections of the film. We are given a few well placed twists that are well earned, and more importantly, are setup with care and intelligence. The little seeds of knowledge are laid out here and there to make the deceptions solid and convincing. All the qualities of the narrative flow together very smoothly and smartly. The second half of the film shows Jonathan’s development as he has the confidence to take action against Wyatt, and become a more capable protagonist when under pressure. I also think the development of the romantic relationship between Jonathan and S is done beautifully, and brings a warm levity to the right parts of the film. This really sets the film apart from other seductive thrillers as they rarely feature a genuinely decent and charming romantic storyline. Ultimately, it is this element that the film is most concerned with, and does continue to make it a point of importance for the characters.
Ewan McGregor is an actor that I have a true fondness for. While I haven’t seen many of his movies, I do find him an exceptional talent who always shows dedication and enthusiasm for his work. As Jonathan McQuarry, he demonstrates a very modest quality. He’s clearly a man of humble upbringings that’s never been adventurous or daring. His new sexual experiences do energize him, but don’t taint the man he is underneath. He matures into a fuller person not held back by his old timid hesitations, but never loses the decency and heart that define him. When he meets and gets to know S, he is genuinely enamored by her in a touching, heartfelt way. McGregor embodies these endearing qualities authentically and with all the kind-hearted charm possible. There’s nothing disingenuous about his performance. It all comes straight from the heart, and when Jonathan’s forced into the more adversarial aspects of the film, the tension and fearful weight of the plot are carried wonderfully by him. He makes for an engaging and sympathetic protagonist.
I am also highly impressed by Hugh Jackman here, as I usually am. He’s also an actor I believe has incredible talent, and he really sinks his teeth into this role. He starts out as a somewhat charming individual who enjoys indulging in all the lustful pleasures of life. He’s charismatic and quite the arrogant jackass, but he’s able to ensnare Jonathan out of his shell with temptations of new, daring experiences. Despite Wyatt’s abrasive ego, you are able to accept him as an intriguing instigator of excitement in Jonathan’s life. Now, I don’t believe I’ve seen Jackman portray a full-on villain before, but he is intensely intimidating as one here. His manipulative turn later in the film is dark and devilish. There’s enough mystery about his character to make him threatening, but when you find out what he is capable of, that only backs up and enhances the severe, frightening qualities of Jackman’s character and performance. Overall, I think he relished playing every facet of this character, and it really shows through while never betraying the grounded weight of the film. Being a producer on the movie I’m sure only benefitted the quality of his on-screen work.
Michelle Williams puts on a beautiful performance, reflecting her own gorgeous physical beauty. She brings out a warm, soulful depth of heart to S. She just glows on screen with her bright smile and sweet presence. She also presents a sexually confident woman who is sensual and seductive, but not aggressive. Williams has a sparkling, heartfelt chemistry with Ewan McGregor that is the shining quality of this film. They play off each other with such genuine loving emotion that you truly feel how special this is for both characters. She is able to convey a rich array of emotions that really forge a connection with the audience in relation to Jonathan. She is a vibrant ray of light that gives this film an endearing emotional weight that we are regularly reminded of, and really has resonance in the end.
The score was done by Ramin Djawadi, who also later scored the Denzel Washington-Ryan Reynolds thriller Safe House, and he is amazingly consistent in his style and quality. As I mentioned in my Safe House review, his compositions are very evocative of the scores heard in many Michael Mann films such as Collateral. Meshed with Spinotti’s cinematography, that couldn’t have created a more desirable result for me. Djawadi does an impeccable job layering in tension, suspense, and an alluring, elegant mystique to the film. It’s just a work of excellence, in my view, and I’m glad to experience his work regularly on the TV series Person of Interest. He puts so much depth and lush sensuality into the Deception score, and I highly recommend checking out the soundtrack release.
Deception was partially shot on digital video giving a bold, clear visual quality to all these dark environments, and this film pushes the visual darkness to a new, deep level. The strip club scene early on has rich, pristine colors. Yet, other scenes are more muted mostly utilizing soft greens and ambers to evoke a very inviting visual mood. Danté Spinotti’s cinematography just makes such gorgeous use of color, as he’s been doing since Manhunter, and his camera work and compositions are stunningly beautiful. This man makes art out of every frame using light, shadow, movement, and depth of field to masterful extent and detail. The Chinatown sequence is a special favorite of mine that motivated me to visit Chicago’s Chinatown shortly after the film’s release. The Chinese architecture and visual culture really creates a romantic mystique for Jonathan and S’s most engaging encounter. Deception has a visual style that really is a feast and a pleasure for my eyes. It sets my artistic filmmaking imagination on fire. Now, I will admit that the first few times I saw the movie, the scenes in Spain at the end left me wanting from a visual standpoint. The rest of the movie was so rich with seductive atmosphere and shadowy moodiness that the soft, muted quality of the daytime scenes in Spain didn’t do much for me.
The ending in general, story wise, left me a bit unsatisfied for a while as well. I won’t spoil anything here, but I will say that the film deserved a stronger, more intense pay-off. It could’ve used a more personal and emotionally charged comeuppance in light of everything that Jackman’s character had done. On early viewings, it did lack an especially impactful punctuation to that aspect of the story. Ultimately, it’s focused on the relationship between Jonathan and S, and I can surely accept that as a vital part of the story. I just felt that the ending we got just didn’t have as much resonance as I would have wanted between McGregor and Jackman. I’m not sure what that resolution would be, but it seemed like it needed a little more build up and pay-off. Of course, on repeated viewings, I have been able to easily accept it by way of familiarity. I still would prefer a stronger resolution to the adversarial conflict of the film, but I can enjoy the film quite well as it is today.
Regardless of this, I still feel that screenwriter Mark Bomback, along with creative input by director Marcel Langenegger, put together a very well crafted and sharply written script. The characters are fully developed and vibrantly inhabit this world and the story, and the plot is tightly wrapped around them. I think the character of Jonathan McQuarry has a wonderful arc that allows him to fully break free of his meek shell, and into a bright world of possibilities. Yet, he has to trudge through a dangerous and seductive world to get there, but it’s an evolution that he earns. The deceptions that weave into the story are very cleverly threaded, and culminate in some chilling, intimidating moments that sell the danger Jonathan becomes trapped in. It’s surely not the greatest mystery of all time, but for someone that just cannot write a mystery to save his life, I have to commend someone when they achieve a rather intelligently written manipulative tale.
So, the big critics didn’t like it, and many didn’t care to give it a chance. I’m not saying it’s some unsung gem of cinema, but Deception is a fine film handled with care by a lot of exceptional filmmaking talents. I really like the narrative it tells, and the qualities of emotion and heart it focuses on in our loving leads. Unlike many dark, edgy, and dangerous thrillers, it doesn’t delve you into the gritty violence or erotic sleaze. It’s an elegantly made film enveloped in a very shadowy, sultry world of treachery and passion. If you have an appreciation for neo noir, I highly recommend this film for the gorgeous, brilliant cinematography alone. Still, there’s plenty to enjoy and find beauty in, and being a major fan of crime thrillers, I’m very pleased to see this film go into some different directions and find something other than fractured souls and tragic crimes. Of course, that clearly means I’m going to have to review some more Michael Mann movies shortly.