HOUSTON–Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (“Love Crimes”) makes a solid directorial debut with “Sketch Artist,” a well-crafted mystery that boasts a smart script by journalist Michael Angeli and a strong lead performance by Jeff Fahey. Set for a June debut on the Showtime cable network, pic should perform respectably in Canadian and European feature markets, and enjoy a long shelf life on homevid.
Fahey hits the right notes of nervous intensity and mounting dread in the title role, a scruffy artist newly hired by L.A. police to sketch pictures of suspects based on eyewitness recollections.
After a high-profile fashion designer is slain, Fahey goes to work with a courier (Drew Barrymore) who saw a woman leaving the scene of the crime. Barrymore describes a face that looks an awful lot like that of Fahey’s wife, Sean Young, an upwardly mobile interior designer.
Greatly shocked, and anxious to protect his wife, Fahey scraps the sketch and draws an altogether different face.
Things get complicated when a photog (Belle Avery) who looks just like the altered sketch is picked up for questioning. Things get even more complicated when Barrymore is found dead–shortly after a neighbor saw Fahey trying to enter her apartment. Script makes a nod to the Hitchcock tradition when Fahey becomes the subject of a police dragnet as he tries to find the real killer(s). But “Sketch Artist” really is more interested in developing a film noir mood, even though Papamichael wisely resists the temptation to go for obvious noir visuals.
Considerable suspense is generated as Papamichael dangles the possibility that the frantic artist may have killed the courier to protect his wife–even though his wife might very well be guilty of murder.
There are several red herrings, including French thesp Tcheky Karyo as the fashion designer’s partner, Stacey Haiduk as a not-so-grieving widow and Charlotte Lewis as a high-priced call girl who knows a lot about the designer’s business dealings. But “Sketch Artist” plays fair and keeps the coincidence rate to a minimum.
Even the plot twist that strains credibility most seriously–Fahey somehow manages to draw a real person tied to the case while protecting Young–has a logical explanation: He doesn’t consciously recall (but ultimately is reminded) that he glimpsed the departing photog when he first arrived at the crime scene.
Fahey offers an excellent modern-day variation of the classic film noir flawed hero: a hard-drinking, chain-smoking malcontent who can redeem himself only by getting in way, way over his head.
Young is aptly ambiguous as Fahey’s wife, while Frank McCrae is amiably bearish as Fahey’s best friend on the police force. Barrymore, recently photographed by Papamichael in Katt Shea’s “Poison Ivy,” makes the most of a small but key role. Other supporting players are first-rate.
Tech credits are fine. Special credit goes to Mark Isham for an evocative musical score that greatly enhances the mood of steadily escalating uneasiness.