by Truly Edison
There is probably no movie that I defend more frequently or with more intense passion than Atom Egoyan’s dead-in-the-water 2005 murder mystery, Where The Truth Lies. If you’ve never heard of it before, you are DEFINITELY not in the minority; the only other people I know who’ve seen it are people I’ve literally watched it with. I’m the proud owner of its only English-language five star Letterboxd reviews. I’ve written poems about it, used images from it in visual art, and all around been a complete lunatic about it since high school. I rewatched it last night with a close friend of mine who had never seen it, and the time has come to finally admit something I never wanted to say: Where The Truth Lies is not very good.
Don’t get me wrong, there are parts of it that are EXTREMELY good, and this article is far from a denouncement of my love for this film. For one thing, the characters. Oh my GOD the characters. Lanny and Vince are a late-1950s comedy duo much in the style of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (lawsuit-threateningly so, in the case of the film’s source material). They have their fun little bit that they do along with all of the other tropetastic trappings of 50s celebrity, like extreme drug use, mob involvement, and what my friend accurately describes as “no homo threesomes”. Yeah, that’s where this is going. The homoeroticism between these two guys is INCREDIBLY interesting, especially when it comes to the coded language around their stage routine; it’s described as a “boy-girl act” and a “marriage”, and they’re regularly referred to as (comedy) partners. All that coding ultimately pays off in an emotionally excruciating climactic scene that I am never not thinking about. Their interactions are punchy and fun and demonstrate an obvious intimacy between the two that’s still rife with uncertainty. The other major characters—Maureen, victim of the murder that ends their career, and Karen, journalist trying to discover the truth fifteen years later—play off of each other beautifully despite never meeting, crafting this unique parallel across time. I’m a sucker for a minimal cast with a water-tight interpersonal dynamic.
I just wish they were in a better movie, you know? The more I think about my last Where The Truth Lies re-watch, the more I realize its glaring structural problems. It tackles a lot of big-money genre modes—the locked-room murder, the unreliable narrator, all that good good stuff—but doesn’t exactly know what to do with them. Its central mystery seems somehow too thin and needlessly convoluted at the same time. More often than not it relies on Karen entering a kind of 2010 Sherlock-esque ‘mind palace,’ returning from it with an extremely convenient realization that no actual person would have pieced together. Most glaring (and most complained about by others) is the film’s heavy-handed voiceover narration; it works sometimes, is necessary sometimes, but it’s just. Everywhere. Even I found myself starting to get sick of it.
And it drives me insane because the movie should work. All of the elements are there for it to work. A sexy mid-2000s murder mystery dual-set in the 50s and 70s with Colin Firth and Kevin Bacon as repressed bisexual comedian boyfriends? It should have been Brokeback Mountain two months before Brokeback Mountain. The concepts, the themes, the images, the CHARACTERS are all right there, waiting to be put into something that could easily be fantastic given the right treatment. They’re waiting to be put into the version of the movie that exists in my mind and that I had convinced myself was the real thing.
I haven’t even talked about the ending of the film yet. I’m going to do that right now, so here’s a big old SPOILER ALERT for anyone who has (somehow) been convinced to watch this thing. Go do that and come back to this tab in two hours. Okay? Okay. For all its flaws, Where The Truth Lies ends beautifully: fifteen years after the crime, Vince is forced to accept that he murdered Maureen in a drug-induced haze after she blackmailed him with the threat of making his sexuality public knowledge. Unable to cope with the guilt, he takes his own life in the same hotel room he took hers in all those years ago. Lanny is forced to accept that he helped Vince get away with it, and though it saved their lives and neither of them went to jail it ended their relationship forever. In his words, “The marriage was over.” Karen comes away from the story worse off for having gotten the thing she wanted from its very beginning—the truth. Nothing hits better than a gorgeous bummer of an ending that wraps up everybody’s business in the most heartbreaking way possible.
Except Where The Truth Lies doesn’t end after this revelation. In the last five minutes of the movie Karen finds out that nope, actually, The Butler Did It. Yes, that is the true ending of the film, played entirely straight. Yes, I wish I was kidding. Despite having set up the perfect conclusion, the movie trips over its shoelaces with possibly the dumbest reversal in film history, too soon to the end for a viewer to even know what to do with it. Why this happened I will never understand. The only possible explanation is that it must be how the novel ends, and it's a terrible ending for a novel, too. It literally boggles the mind how MULTIPLE PEOPLE could have written, read, greenlit, shot, edited, and released this without realizing how much it undermines not only the end of the movie but the movie as a whole.
And I defended this stupid ass ending! I defended this stupid ass ending for years! I have put in a lot of hours convincing people (or trying to, at least) that Where The Truth Lies is an unsung masterpiece of the decade. I’ve always blamed the way it was royally screwed by the MPAA for its lack of cultural sticking power; I still think that’s true to a large extent, but I also think that as an adult it’s time for me to face the cold, hard facts. Where The Truth Lies is not a particularly good movie.
But my question, dear reader, is this: does it have to be?
Is it not enough for a movie to inject two pretend little guys into my brain and keep them there for the considerable future? Is it not enough to watch Colin Firth try to fuck Kevin Bacon for an hour and forty-seven minutes? Is it not enough for hot women in incredibly anachronistic outfits to stare plaintively into the camera for long stretches of time and then solve decade-old cold cases? I wouldn’t have written this whole article if I didn’t love Where The Truth Lies with all of my heart and soul, despite its problems. I love it even more every time I watch it and I love it even more every time I watch it with somebody new. Quality aside, it’s a movie I love to think about and feel about, and above all talk about. My favorite movie is bad and I’m proud. And there’s no way I’m the only person on the planet who feels that way, either.
So repeat it with me: MY FAVORITE MOVIE IS BAD AND I’M PROUD!!!