I would like you to understand something… He has done wonderful things for many people and I have been privileged to work for him. But I do have certain principles, especially about how women are to be treated and respected.
— Miss Trout (Sonja Bennett), Where the Truth Lies
A repeated image in the impressionistic “Making of Where the Truth Lies” is the dead body. This is apt, given that so much time in Atom Egoyan’s styley noir is given to the search for what happened to beautiful Maureen (Rachel Blanchard), killed during the 1950s and mostly forgotten. In the film, she appears in flashbacks and as a pale, perfectly gorgeous corpse. The DVD’s documentary shows her in a box surrounded by ice, in makeup, on a wooden gurney, bouncing stiffly as extras in dark suits carry her. The images are delicate, memorable, strange.
And they’re refreshing, especially when considered in comparison to the usual DVD doc fare, which tend to do cast member explanations of characters, on-set gushing about the most excellent and visionary director, and crew members recalling how fun/hard it was to scout locations or design costumes. Instead, it’s comprised of home-movie-seeming footage, observing Egoyan on several sets, talking quietly with his actors or crew, walking through or ahead of a shot, thinking through compositions or camera moves.
The lack of explicitly articulated information here is of a piece with Egoyan’s work, which is to say, it is elusive and provocative. Though a commentary track for this most precise of films would surely be welcome, it’s also the case that Egoyan and stars Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth talked a lot about it on the film’s U.S. release, when, after it won five Genie Awards and competing for the Palme d’Or, the MPAA rated Where the Truth Lies the dreaded NC-17, reportedly for a brief “three-way” scene (this was pre-Brokeback and even so, the scene was and is remarkably un-racy). Though Egoyan and the actors pleaded their case on tv talk shows, the film remained much unseen, despite or because of the “controversy.”
All that said, Truth is complicated. Split across time periods, voiceovers, and protagonists, it doesn’t give up much in the way of resolution. The opening scene establishes a doubled focus on a Lewis-and-Martin-style comedy duo, Lanny (Kevin Bacon) and Vince (Colin Firth), as they appear both on a stage and on a tv monitor, the video grain increasingly prominent in a close-up of the screen. “There’ll be no next time,” sings Lanny, staggering through the last moments of their annual, mega-hours-long polio telethon. And then this “last time” fades into a slow tracking shot through a luxurious hotel room to a bathroom with grand gold fittings. As the lush orchestral score swells, the camera looks down into the tub to reveal a body, a girl seemingly drowned, pale, grotesque, and grim. This, the title hints, is Where the Truth Lies. Except it isn’t.
Adapted from Rupert Holmes’ 2003 crime novel, the film is less concerned with who killed Maureen in the 1950s than with how the murder broke up the comedy team. Put another way, the film examines the impulse to investigate, here embodied by young journalist Karen (Alison Lohman), whose 1972 pursuit of “truth” creates and unravels a mystery of identity, loyalty, and betrayal. She first appears applying lipstick in her car, feeling, as her voiceover puts it, “a desperate need to prove myself.”
To that end, she interviews Vince these many years after the fact, and he is immediately worried about her salacious or sensationalist intentions. Having read her previous articles, he wonders, “It’s funny how you’re really in them a lot.” The camera close on her glowy, inscrutable face, it’s hard to miss the hoop earrings marking her self-conscious stylishness. “I try to present a balanced view of my subjects,” she says, “I leave the conclusions to my readers.”
This being an Egoyan movie, her intentions mean precious little, except as they indicate her weakness and delusion. “It would be your words,” she assures Vince, though, as the film goes on to show, words only bear meaning in contexts, and show business is all about deceit. Twisty plot turns will reveal Karen’s early infatuation with Lanny (she had polio as a child and appeared on that last telethon, where she was moved by his earnest words and tears, which she though were meant for her) as well as the complications of Lanny and Vince’s partnership.
Karen reads through Lanny’s accounts of the breakup, listens to Vince’s version, and conducts other interviews (Maureen’s mother, the “boys'” manager). And yet the truth remains elusive, as much a function of her reading process as the stories she uncovers or stumbles on. Her stumbling involves deceptions as well: during a chance meeting with Lanny, she pretends to be her best friend, a second grade teacher, impresses him with her apparent intelligence and spends a night with him, learning too late that he is not he man of her childhood dreams, but, as her friend says, “a pig.” This even after she has been reading his manuscript, providing the film with yet another voiceover, Lanny’s cocky self-loving perspective (he calls “career girls” the “absolute easiest lays in this great nation of ours,” but his “favorite catches were the intellectuals”). Karen’s naivete in this regard seems a mystery in itself, as does her desire.
Hinging on desire and deception, the film suggests that the tensions between Vince and Lanny derive equally from desire and competitiveness. Early on, Vince is so affronted by a night club audience member who insults Lanny that he slams his head repeatedly into a back room counter; “No one calls my partner a kike, do you understand?” he blusters at beating’s end, even as Lanny entertains the crowd out front singing “Just a Gigolo.”
Shortly after, Lanny describes their partnership as “essentially a boy-girl act. I was the tramp, ready for any sort of action, and Vince was the gentleman, always trying to make me behave myself. I was pleasure, and he was control. I was rock and roll and he was class. His presence gave America permission to like me.” The film uses their duality as lens through which to examine show biz, its manifest artifice as much as its authentic perversion. The perpetual adolescent protagonists engage in fights, booze, and drugs, and certainly have all sorts of sex, including that infamous three-way. During the sex scenes, most often shot with bright lights to show their pale, much-exposed skin and awkward efforts to perform, the boys also reveal themselves as insecure and controlling, their anonymous, energetic conquests feebly defining their masculinity.
The sex scenes’ MPAA censure appears to have more to do with the unromantic, even clinical presentation of acts than with particular explicitness. That said, the sex partners here occupy multiple identities, and the sex acts never imply satisfaction, only dread and disappointment. And that, more than any specific imagery, seems the movie’s primary offense. It tells a kind of truth — which lies, after all — even as it refuses to resolve or romanticize its mystery.