10 October 2004 | bob the moo
Poor story and average structure take away from the tough acting and tense atmosphere
A prostitute is brutally murdered and the police's only lead is James Walter Wayland, a drunken epileptic who is heir to a very successful textiles company. With little to go on but his testimony, Detectives Braxton and Kennesaw hook him up to a polygraph and begin to question him further. Wayland's arrogance and contempt for them immediately rubs them up the wrong way and they increasingly suspect that he is not telling them everything. They keep pushing him, aware of his illness, in the hope that he will start to crack. However what they never foresaw was that Wayland would push back, getting information on both the men and turning the tables on them.
With a pretty heavy weight cast, I was attracted to this film when it went by the much better name of 'Liar' in the UK without really knowing a great deal about it. The film has an interesting premise and offers a good flashback structure with some tense interrogation scenes but the plot is not strong enough to really deliver this and ends up twisting into some silly places that fail to convince. The development of the story meant we were thrown in at the deep end not a problem at first, but I never really got a handle on the film until near the end, making sections of it unengaging. The way the plot turns and twists is also a problem, because very little of it actually rings true, with some of it seeming extreme or just plain nonsensical. It is delivered well though, the interview room is used to increase the tension and seems to become steadily darker throughout the film to produce a good mood.
This tense mood is helped by a pretty good cast, in particular the lead three who have enough testosterone to start a riot. Roth plays the meatier role from the start and he does have fun even if I didn't think his epileptic thing really worked that well. Penn is OK but doesn't have much to do other than bash heads with his co-stars, but it is Rooker who manages to steal a lot of the film. Starting with the feel of just a tough guy role, Rooker delivers a much more complex person with self-loathing that is convincing (up until the script takes his character away). The three interact well and the tension between them almost covers from the fact that the story isn't actually that good but their shared scenes at least have a tough energy that makes them watchable. Support from Arquette, Zellweger and Burstyn is fleeting but adds the feeling of depth.
Overall this is not that good a film; the story isn't convincing and is full of silly jumps, nor is it structured that well. However these problems are slightly covered by three tough actors in a small dark room, providing a reasonably good sense of tension and urgency. Of course without the story to back them up, the film gradually starts to come apart and delivers a deeply unsatisfying ending, but it just about has enough going for it to make it watchable.