One of the greatest, but unacknowledged strides in western civilization lies in the art of non-martial emasculation—the reduction of another’s masculinity through humiliation—symbolic dull-knifed detachment of the genitals, spilling reserves of testosterone and rendering the victim socially crippled.
In “Sleuth”, famed detective novelist Andrew Wyke (Michael Caine) and his wife’s lover Milo Tindle (Jude Law) engage in a sadistic battle of castration, the blows delivered by verbiage so mean and acting so sweet as to make the vile drip with honey.
Basically an ongoing verbal confrontation between two men, it occasionally flirts with tedium, only to reinvent itself in the nick of time, bounding forward into deeper realms of contemptuous exchange.
If an initial provocation must be assigned, the honor goes to Milo. While openly schtupping Wyke’s estranged wife Maggie, he has the unbelievable gall to come knocking on the author’s door to request a divorce on her behalf.
Milo is the living definition of a dandy–a dainty pretty boy who has never taken or thrown a punch and does not practice skills that stress the mind or dirty the hands. It’s a specialty based on servicing women, often attached, with resources.
Wyke somehow expects the visit and has done a bit of homework on his rival. Answering the door, he begins with a greeting of mild belittlement, setting the stage for an intensifying volley of retribution.
He gives Milo a drink and guides him on a mini tour of the house, making sure not to miss the larger than life size poster of himself with all of his well-known titles listed. He expresses sincere surprise that Milo admits no familiarity with his work.
Wyke, getting on in age, has money and prestige,. He wields considerable power. Milo has youth, virility and is as adept at crawling under one’s skin as others are at striking it.
Wyke’s initial blows center on what he considers the obvious flaws in Milo makes-up. He sites Milo’s profession or lack there of—an out-of-work actor, a part time chauffeur and most offensively a hair-dresser, the latter besides being a puffy occupation, certainly inadequate to afford Maggie the expensive tastes to which she has become accustomed.
The visitor gracefully absorbs the insults. In counterattack he simply relates in graphic terms how he provides, what according to the author’s wife, Wykes couldn’t. He emphasizes how she reciprocates.
Somewhere in this escalation of brutal attacks, Maggie, the marriage, the infidelity, all become irrelevant. Although she remains a point of reference, what launched this psychological warfare, is of no more significance. Far past where apes, bears, and other wild animals consider the matter solved, the combatants, enraptured by the contest, continue to bare teeth.
At times the warriors lose their way, blindly consumed in a hypnotic vortex of thrusts and parries, rabidly intoxicated into manipulative perversity beyond any discernable purpose.
The performance, directed by four-time Oscar nominee Kenneth Branagh, transcends what can be mentally conjured. Both men, especially Law, sacrifice themselves to the performance taking us with them. We visit places unanticipated and little acknowledged, but none are foreign.
Magnificent set design and lighting; a spare classical score—all play an integral part, lending timely accent and augmentation.
Harold Pinter, playwright and Nobel Prize recipient, updated the screenplay from the original release in 1972. Pinter has a reputation for exploring the dark side, perhaps a way of conveying his perspective on the current state of mankind which according to interviews he views as primal and bleak.
“Sleuth”, could easily be imagined on the stage where words and the spaces in between count more than action. It’s a British film, reflecting the contradictions in a society that stresses what’s proper.
A fine piece of work, but as they say across the pond, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.