Towards the end of Simon Kaijser’s scholarly thriller Spinning Man, actor Guy Pearce — as confused but stubborn philosophy teacher cum possible murderer Evan Birch –wanders up the stairs of his home and a mouse in a spinning wheel cage momentarily captures his eyes. It’s a nonchalant gesture, barely interrupting his slump-shouldered lumber upward and onward into his own version of a cage with a family that’s been dramatically altered by his questionable decisions over the past few weeks.
It’s an obvious metaphor, but not an unearned one based on the film’s previous 95 minutes worth of theoretical cat and mouse-like conversations between Pearce and a police detective (Pierce Brosnan) who seemingly has the professor dangling on the end of a rope after a student at his university (Odeya Rush from Ladybird) winds up dead. Not only does an eye witness place the teacher at the scene of the crime, but physical evidence and a checkered past of sexual dalliances with other female students (including current one Alexandra Shipp) certainly don’t cast a favorable light on him.
Added to the mix is Evan’s unreliable (to put it mildly) memory about his past. At first, he’s simply combative with the police on every matter, whether it be a line of questioning or the more advanced matter of his car being impounded for an evidential search. Slowly, Evan’s character turns into a truly conflicted man, channeling some fuzzy memories and flashbacks that wouldn’t be out of place from his role as the broken Leonard in Memento (2000). And as he tunnels down this obfuscated slippery slope of what’s real and what’s not, the audience certainly begins to side with his more stable better half (Minnie Driver).
Less of a police procedural and more of a dry treatise on the nature of logic and truth- such as when the professor challenges his students to prove a chair he places at the front of the classroom truly exists- Spinning Man gains points for trying something clinical wrapped in the usual murder thriller. The only problem is its often one-note performances and gimmicky editing that tries to be smarter than the story itself.
As the embattled professor, Guy Pearce is definitely not someone to root for, but he embodies his role with such an obstinate manner that we really don’t care one way or the other what happens to him. Faring the best is Brosnan as the analytical, calm detective matching wits with someone who believes himself better and smarter than the rest. There’s no flash in his performance, yet he owns the screen every time he’s there. I almost wanted the film to shift its wonky perspective to him instead of being trapped inside the egotistical head and fractured visions of Evan, which are given pompous flashes throughout the film. For a film that wants to be largely dialectic, it often shows much more than tells.
Based on a respected novel by George Harrar and adapted by Matthew Aldrich (Coco, 2017), Spinning Man is ultimately about the basic philosophical difference between both men. Whereas one solemnly and respectfully returns a personal artifact to a grieving mother, the other is juxtaposed in the throes of passion with a much younger girl. It’s clear neither will (or can) change their trajectory in life. And like the chair at the front of the classroom, what really exists for Evan Birch? The film leaves that open to interpretation. I just wanted him to not exist at all.
Spinning Man opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, April 6 at the AMC Classic Hickory Creek.