Deception is a lean, well-crafted sex thriller with a polished European feel and a striking visual style courtesy of first time Swiss director Marcel Langenegger. It’s a quieter sort of thriller than we’ve become used to after so many Bourne flicks, but that doesn’t mean it’s boring. To the contrary: there are plenty of thrills (and plenty of sex) packed into this briskly paced film, but at its core Deception is a character driven meditation on alienation in regimented world (The Metamorphosis, anyone?). Sure it’s as fizzy as a glass of champagne in most other ways, but who says entertainment can’t also be intellectually stimulating?
Ewan McGregor plays the nebbishy Jonathan McQuarry, an 18-hour a day workaholic accountant with no social life to speak of. He spends his evenings alone in glass buildings, staring out blankly from behind his laptop screen at the lighted streets of New York. Langenegger creates visual metaphors for Jonathan’s ghost-like isolation, many of them lifted from Antonioni. In one scene Jonathan rides an elevator while two women chat about their sex life, blatantly unconscious to his presence. In another he is left stranded between two concrete pillars, just having had the subway doors slam in his face.
His colorless existence changes dramatically when Jonathan meets the charismatic, snake-like lawyer Wyatt Bose (Hugh Jackman). With a charming smile and an invitation for tennis, Wyatt slowly coaxes Jonathan out of his unsociable shell. The plot picks up steam when a cell phone switch up between the two men leads the hapless Jonathan to a Sex Club informally called “The List” (“Intimacy without intricacy” is its motto). Soon the fairly virginal Jonathan is taking a giddy tour of the most fancy hotels in New York, meeting Wall Street women for consequence free sex (including the gorgeous Charlotte Rampling as the “Belle of Wall Street” with a self-declared soft spot for “bashful boys”). It is not until he meets the luminous, if remote ‘S’ (Michelle Williams) that Jonathan truly begins to blossom. Alas, a good thing never lasts as an ill-fated tryst throws Jonathan into the midst of a sex scandal, engineered by the dubious Wyatt – obviously not the white-collar type he pretended to be to entrap the naïve Jonathan in his web. It is now clear that Jonathan will have to outmaneuver the crafty Wyatt in order to save himself from social ruin.
The lead performances are uniformly solid. McGregor plays Jonathan as an inelegant numbers man uncomfortable in his own skin. His severely parted hair and geeky glasses are a shield, a layer of protection between him and the world. As the film progresses McGregor subtly changes his character’s tics, showing how Jonathan is changed, not just by his passion for ‘S’, but by a newly found sense of self-worth. Jackman glitters as a cruelly suave conman with a taste for international crime. Williams has eyes the size of platters and lips to match, but sadly doesn’t have enough screen time here to truly give an effective performance. Still, her empathetic presence is a welcome one; its obvious Jonathan would fall in love with ‘S’ at first sight, which is all that’s really required of her (this is a sex thriller, after all).
Mark Bomback’s (Live Free or Die Hard) script for Deception is exceedingly tidy; there are no extraneous scenes or plot lines left unresolved. The narrative hurtles smoothly towards the satisfying, if somewhat predictable ending. Any predictability in the last 20 minutes can be forgiven however, because the rest film is put together in such an appealing, thoroughly entertaining way. We are left with the sense that every part of Deception was as carefully plotted out as Wyatt’s takedown of Jonathan. Deception knows exactly where it’s going and exactly how it’s going to get there. It may be popcorn, but it’s well-made popcorn and that makes all the difference.