Movie review: Sleuth (2007)

Sleuth is essentially a two-man play starring Michael Caine and Jude Law. Caine plays a famous detective writer who lives a seemingly eccentric life, isolated in an estate with lots of electronic surveillance and gizmos. Law plays an actor who visits Caine in an attempt to convince him to give the woman he is having an affair with, Caine’s wife, a divorce.

No such luck. What follows is the playing out of a detective drama in real time. Caine seeks intellectual stimulation. He assumes, incorrectly, that he will not meet anything resembling his match in Law. Instead, he plays with him as a cat with a mouse. He propositions Law with a way to keep Caine’s wife in the luxury she is accustomed to: steal jewels from Caine worth one million dollars. Law sells them for $800,000. Caine collects the insurance money.

Law seems like a buffoon, manipulated by Caine and propelled by greed. He ends up shot and killed. A premonition of sorts.

Next we see Caine visited by a Scotland Yard detective a few days later over the disappearance of an actor, Law’s character. The detective is an intellectual match for Caine and uncovers holes in Caine’s story.

As it turns out, the detective is actually our intrepid actor. He wasn’t shot and killed; he merely fainted…bested and humiliated in this male ego chess match. But now Law had his turn: he bested the famous detective novelist. It is a tie. How will this competition end?

As the match progresses, it becomes clear that the reason for their sparing—the unfaithful wife/new lover—has receded far into the background. The two men clearly enjoy besting the other in humiliating ways. Sleuth is a rather raw look into the darkness of male psyches.

I won’t reveal the ending or who ends up really winning. The ending does call into question what winning means. The prize is recouped, but it long ago stopped being the prize. The actual prize is no longer within reach, and humiliations are merely covered up.

Sleuth is a remake of a 1972 film of the same name. Intriguingly, in the earlier version, Caine played Law’s character to Laurence Olivier’s depiction of the jilted detective-writing husband. I wonder what Caine brought to the role from his earlier match with Olivier.

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