B-movie screenwriter Wayne Beach (Murder at 1600, The Art of War) makes his directorial debut with this intense suspense thriller that takes an intriguing concept – a gangster's attempt to legitimize himself as a businessman by manipulating the purchase of a lucrative inner-city housing project in Anycity, U.S.A. – and staggers the grand deceit through ridiculously precise stages designed to ultimately drag a whole level of government and law enforcement officials into the mire for a final blackmail scheme.
Beach's commentary track – initially intriguing, and then awfully spotty and bland after the first 20 mins. – gives some backstory to the script's genesis, and he admits a great deal of rewriting refined the film's plotting and characters during the development phase.
The characters are well-drawn, as are their frequently metaphorical exchanges which often tie to the film's undercurrent of shaded duplicity. Jolene Blalock (TV's Enterprise) is appropriately ambiguous as the interracial Deputy D.A. Nora Timmer, and her chameleon qualities also influence the film's look, which is luxurious yet restrained in creating shades of amber lit or filtered through various colours. Nora Timmer's the oddball who doesn't quite fit into any race, clique or relationship, and the film's ambient colour palette enhances our sympathy towards her as Beach starts to juggle the various recollections, truths, and revelations meant to keep audiences guessing as to whether the nefarious gangster is masquerading as one of the film's characters.
Beach's script plays with time-frames, but it's still a puzzle unfolding in a linear stream, so the comparisons to The Usual Suspects isn't wholly justified. Beach does try to conclude his story with a similar, fable-like buoyancy, intercutting visual and aural elements to show how the various lies were part of a grand plan, but where Suspects took a whole clique of characters and rendered them fictional through the concluding narration of that film's master criminal – thereby clarifying who was real, and removing a lot of confusion – Beach is stuck with 100% real characters, forcing himself into a corner by having too many names and fake identities to explain in one fast swoop.
Put another way: while it may have made sense to the writer/director and actors after multiple rewrites and rehearsals, first-time viewers may find themselves scrambling for the remote to replay scenes, and clarify names via the DVD's subtitle track – things no one should have to do if things weren't so convoluted.
Slow Burn isn't incoherent, but after patiently playing along with the filmmaker (particularly after such a promising first half), the final wrap-up seems to make better sense after a second viewing. Puzzle finales tend to be tough to pull off, and that's why similar efforts – such as The Prestige, with its basement of pickled doubles, and Under Suspicion (2000), with its lone muddy line of dialogue as the only attempt at plot clarification – tend to leave some audience members perplexed.
A deleted scene on the DVD has Nora Timmer trying to talk sense into a recently arrested gang member (the scene is briefly glimpsed in the film during a montage), while an alternate ending uses the same concluding footage with narration by Timmer, offering a more subjective restatement of the events that initially had her suspected of murdering the film's patsy (Mekhi Phifer, who nicely plays two distinct recounts of his character's relationship with Timmer). Beach later replaced Timmer's narration, which originally bookended the film in an early edit, with the voice of D.A. Ford Cole (Ray Liotta) – a strategic move that keeps the story connected to Cole, and removes Timmer from our own list of possible suspects.
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Maple's transfer is first-rate, and the cinematography by Wally Pfister (The Prestige, Batman Begins) gives the modestly budgeted production a high level of gloss and noirish elegance. The Montreal locations nicely double as Anycity, U.S.A., and Beach's use of R&B-styled techno songs with Jeff Rona's moody score boost the sexual attraction between the film's attractive leading cast.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan