Pierce Brosnan, Guy Pearce and Minnie Driver grapple with the truth in SPINNING MAN

By James Kenney

SPINNING MAN

“There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”

 –Soren Kierkegaard

SPINNING MAN

SPINNING MAN, a new mystery thriller with a large dash of the existential thrown in, is an unusual, simmering-as-opposed-to-boiling police procedural that feels something like being in a dream, or at least not being in a traditional Hollywood movie.  Evan Birch (Guy Pearce), a PhD in philosophical linguistics is a “person of interest” in the vanishing of a young cheerleader (Odeya Rush, who makes  an evocative impression in just a few brief bits) and responds in curious ways to the accusations, both acting guiltless and anything but. Birch doesn’t really do much, just reacting without much heat as accusations are thrown and self-doubts amplify. 

Pierce Brosnan is Detective Malloy, who pursues the case so slowly and affably you think he’s some kind of better-dressed 21st century Columbo, but he never seem aggressively fretful about Birch’s truth or innocence.  As he pointedly says at a key moment, he’s not a priest – Malloy only solves the case because the case is before him – he has little curiosity about why Birch acts the way he does, other than it forces Malloy to spend time with the professor he could spend pursuing other leads, as the department has “a budget” (I can’t remember another film raising this issue!)

SPINNING MAN

Meanwhile part of the problem is that Pearce has written a philosophical book bearing much relation to Kierkegaard’s notion of the truth as subjective– there is no truth,  just one’s experience.  He’s the kind of professor whose midterm involves proving a chair placed at the front of the class exists.  Brosnan counters this prompt by wryly asking “What chair?” which pretty much sums up the interesting SPINNING MAN, directed by Swedish emigre Simon Kaijser with fair style and unfussy foreboding.

Los Angeles, standing in for Florida in SPINNING MAN,  is all contradictions.  Each light breeze is menacing, and never has an attractive beach lake, the scene of the girl’s disappearance, been photographed so unpleasantly and antiseptic.  Nothing is concrete in this film –Birch’s marriage to a wife played by an aloof Minnie Driver remains intact despite repeated transgressions in the past on his part that forced them to move. 

Except that Birch continues to deny them, and we also see him pointedly rejecting advances from current lovelorn students, so we’re not entirely sure how to process any of this.  Malloy flat out calls Birch a liar who is obstructing an investigation, but never really turns the screws on him, either.  The film is more fascinated in Birch’s disturbed mind, and Pearce, by and large an unpretentious actor  still best known in the U.S. for L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, does a credible, efficient job of underplaying, making the Professor seem both vanilla and possibly sociopathic with every considered pause. Pearce finds a way to almost ham it up with what I can only term volatile understatement, which is what the film needs at its core to work its premise. 

Could Birch, who believes in no absolute truth, believe he has not harmed a girl when all evidence persuasively suggests he did?  Has he spun his own existence into something more palatable than what is apparent to all who aren’t caught up in higher ed semantics?

SPINNING MAN

Brosnan continues to comfortably age on screen,  his detective believably shrewd, generally getting what he wants in a situation without overplaying his cards. Alexandra Shipp makes a strong impression as Anna, a student presently besotted with Birch, communicating the vulnerability, intellect, and, yes, self-aware sexiness of a girl in her position, and Clark Gregg steals the few scenes he’s in as Pearce’s plain-speaking lawyer.  The film is based on a George Harrar novel that has a good reputation (I haven’t read it) and has received some dismissive “Can a thriller be a thriller without thrills?” reviews. 

I find this is more an argument against critics (or anyone) needing to label a film by hook or by crook to somehow tidily frame the result.  SPINNING MAN is rather effective at doing what it sets out to do.  As Kierkegaard (who comes up repeatedly in the film, I’m not just being pretentious here) once wrote, “what labels me, negates me.”  No doubt those who are despairing over the film not being a “thriller,” as they understand a thriller to be, would get a C- in Birch’s class.  My subjective truth is that the film is a stimulating, at times chilling, philosophical treatise, with Pearce’s character by its resolution perhaps fully understanding for the first time Kierkegaard’s warning that if you “do it or not do it – you will regret both.”  Fans of the expert cast or unusual takes on worn-out genres should likely find much intriguing in SPINNING MAN, and I recommend it.

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