Sunday, January 22, 2006

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Deceivers (1988)

Before he assumed the role of 007, James Bond in 1995's Goldeneye, actor Pierce Brosnan starred in some very interesting and noteworthy - if not particularly well-known - productions, including the John McTiernan horror film Nomads (1987), and this Nicholas Meyer period piece, The Deceivers. In both of these films, Brosnan reveals remarkable depths and subtlety. These are strong, internal performances from an actor who is best known for playing it cool and sleek in such popular films and TV series as The Thomas Crown Affair and Remington Steele.

The Deceivers commences in India in 1825, as a likeable, upstanding British soldier, Captain William Savage (Brosnan) returns to his province after his wedding to discover a peculiar problem. It seems that one of the local women desires to commit suicide because her husband disappeared a year ago and has not been seen since. As a good Christian and a Good Samaritan, Savage is needled by his wife, Sarah (Helena Michell) to undertake a trick to preserve her life. Because he's of roughly the same body-build as the widow's missing husband, Savage will double as the M.I.A. husband briefly -- just to keep hope alive. He will appear to the widow and then flee, and then her family will not let her be burned alive as tradition demands.

But on the night of this trick, something unexpected happens. In Indian gear (and with swarthy make-up on too...) Savage happens upon a massacre in the forest by blackest night. Behind the crime is a vicious cult know as "the Thuggee." This gang is a Kali-worshiping band of murderers who strangle and gut wayward travelers, then hide their bodies in mass-graves. Ever the hero and the "do-gooder", Savage acts immediately to stop the Thuggees. He captures several of the perpetrators, over the complaints of his superior, and befriends and reforms one of the killers, a man named Hussein (played by Saeed Jaffrey).

Hussein then reluctantly agrees to take Savage deep undercover to infiltrate the cult of Kali to expose the murderers, the so-called "deceivers" of the film's title, who are believed responsible for more than two million brutal deaths in India.

But once ensconced inside the cult, Savage finds his Christian faith tested, especially after he tastes some of Kali's narcotic-like "gifts." Always in danger of being exposed as a white man, a British colonial, Savage must forge a choice about his future when Hussein is exposed, and Savage is ordered to strangle his friend before the other members of the cult...

The Deceivers, produced by Merchant & Ivory, is really a good old fashioned "heart of darkness" tale, a 19th century Donnie Brasco, in which a good man - one convinced of his own morality and religion - loses himself and his identity to a wicked "cult" that captures his imagination, his allegiance, and almost his soul. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the tacit, visual comparison of the Thuggee and the British; or as Westerners might put it, "pagans" vs. "Christians."

In particular, one of the Thuggee religious rituals portrayed in the films involves incense, a penitent pose among the practitioners, and the tasting of sugar cubes (rather than Communion wafers). The director, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan's (1982) Nicholas Meyer makes the most out of the moment by letting the audience detect the similarity itself. It's clear in the staging of the religious pract that there's very little difference, at least in this particular rite, between Christianity and the Thuggee. But Meyer doesn't make the fact trite or cliched by drawing attention to this thesis with heavy-handed dialogue.

Ahh, but - of course - Christians don't terrorize people, you say? Well, uhm, that's not strictly true, since the Westerners (Brits) in this film occupy and subjugate India's men and women in the colonizing and occupying of that country. And, as the film makes clear, some Brits take bribes to look the other way regarding the Thuggee, and others simply don't want to get involved. Instead, they'd rather just keep taking India's treasures and shipping them back to England. The m.o. of Brosnan's uptight superior is to keep the Indian people in poverty and ignorance. Don't improve their schools; don't improve their infrastructure. Do nothing except what benefits England.

Where The Deceivers works most successfully is in its depiction of Brosnan's steady psychological decline into barbarism as he becomes as fanatical and dangerous as the other Thuggee. Captain Savage strangles a man with his bare hands when his identity is threatened. He takes drugs, and - though he is married - makes love to a beautiful harlot who has been given to him for one night of debauchery.

This love-making scene represents one of the film's best, and trippiest moments. During the act, the lovely harlot transforms first into Brosnan's virginal love, the English, (and oh so porcelain) Sarah, then into the widow whom Brosnan first hoped to protect in his act of Good Samaritanism. But his lover's real identity is made clear when director Meyer cuts to the shadows on the wall behind them. Brosnan and his lover are seen intertwined there...and - out of the blue - an extra set of hands grasp Savage's torso. In other words, he is making love to the six-armed Goddess, Kali, herself. She has embraced him, this Goddess of Destruction, and he is truly hers now. Or, is this just the drugs in Savage's system, making him hallucinate? You decide...

Perhaps more intellectually fascinating than genuinely scary, The Deceivers boasts its fair share of suspense. It remains an artful, challenging film, one that makes its point visually rather than attempting to score points through clever words in a screenplay. For instance, at the film's opening, Brosnan's character hunts a wounded tiger in the brush without a second thought. He is arrogant in his superiority over the beast. However, by the movie's end, it is Savage himself who is hunted in the brush, wounded and desperate like the tiger he killed. The point, never reinforced through hokey dialogue, is that Savage - as his name indicates - has lapsed into animal barbarism by killing with his bare hands...and liking it. He is literally an animal, and Savage even attempts to strangle a child in his murderous state. That's the low point of his soul. It is in that brutal act that he realizes he has forsaken his humanity; and finally attempts to reclaim it.

Nicholas Meyer has contributed wonderful films to the genre, including Time after Time (1979), and The Deceivers represents one of his most artful, most restrained, cinematic efforts. The climax, in which a cavalry literally rides over the hill at precisely the right moment to save the endangered Captain, is the film's biggest weakness, though at times it is also a bit slow-paced, especially if you're expecting this to be an action-thriller. Instead, consider The Deceivers as Apocalypse Now, The Wicker Man, and Donnie Brasco meets Merchant and Ivory, and you'll have a good sense of what to expect. And I don't think you'll be disappointed.

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