In an alternate universe, Guy Pearce plays sleazeheads, killers, cutthroats with attitude, and various other magnetically bent souls — in other words, just what he plays now — only he does it in movies that aren’t semi-off-the-radar hipster curios and genre throwaways. He does it with the stardom that “L.A. Confidential” and “Memento” promised. “Spinning Man” is one more halfway interesting, not-fully-realized-enough low-budget “dark” thriller that gives Pearce the chance to strut his chops. For a while, he’s quite good as a suave, confident weasel — a philosophy professor who becomes the chief suspect in the case of a high-school cheerleader who disappeared.
Did he make contact with her at the local lake, lure her into his car, do things that he shouldn’t have, and — in the end — kill her? It sure looks that way. “Spinning Man” loads up an accusatory pile of circumstantial evidence against its main character, making him seem guilty enough, for a while, to occupy the center of a “Columbo” episode.
Pearce’s Evan Birch is an earnest and popular professor, with a wife (Minnie Driver) and two kids (Eliza Pryor and Noah Salsbury Lipson), but beneath his decorous surface he’s a horndog with a shady past. (He was chased, by scandal, out of one university.) Evan sleeps with his students, and he can’t even go into the hardware store to buy a mousetrap without fantasizing about the comely store assistant. (We know because we see his fantasies.)
What makes Pearce such a good actor is that he keys you to the furtive, duplicitous side of Evan — the one addicted to desire — without tipping his hand. He makes Evan a highly polished and civilized lech, which can’t help but lead you to wonder what else he’s hiding.
Of course, being an oil-smooth academic sleaze doesn’t make Evan a killer. But when Pierce Brosnan, as an impeccably brusque and inquisitive silver-haired police detective, starts snooping around, asking to inspect Evan’s car, and Evan won’t let him (he throws a righteous snit fit about the Fourth Amendment), his refusal to cooperate is the first of many red flags.
Brosnan, a crisp sly dog of an actor, might be playing Columbo; he lets you know how much he enjoys the chase. And there are so many lies he has to cut through! Evan says that he never met the victim; it turns out he did. (After his car is impounded, strands of her hair are found in it.) He claims that on that crucial afternoon, he showed up on time to retrieve his daughter from camp — but, in fact, he was 40 minutes late. There’s a disturbing incident involving Evan and a pet rabbit; at another point he assures his daughter that he “wouldn’t hurt a fly.” He lies, he denies, he dissembles. And he dreams of hooking up with younger women, like his adoring student Anna (the luminous Alexandra Shipp), who came on to him the previous semester. We wait for the strands of guilt to tighten around him.
If “Spinning Man” were content to be the study of a murderer, it might have been gripping. But like so many “tricky” noir thrillers that are contrived B-movies at heart, it jerks our expectations around and turns toying with the audience into a kind of formalist stunt. Pearce pulls you through the movie, and so do a couple of the other actors: Minnie Driver, who plays Evan’s wife as an anxiously supportive saint, even though she sees right through him, and Clark Gregg as his exuberant cynic of a lawyer. But there’s a certain point when you realize that the director, Simon Kaijser, and the screenwriter, Matthew Aldrich (adapting a 2003 novel by George Harrar), have exploited Pearce’s casting not simply to take advantage of what a fine-grained actor he can be but to do a knockoff of his mystique from “Memento.”
Evan has severe memory lapses that are never entirely explained (is he mentally damaged? or is he in fatal denial about who he is?), and as he starts to space out with uncertainty, so does the movie. Pearce seems to be playing a different character than we thought; now he’s Leonard Shelby meets the Boston Strangler. Evan spins a rationalization for his (vague) mental state, and for his lying, out of his lectures on the philosophy of language. He says that “truth” is a relative term, and that he’s just telling the truth as he sees it.
But that, frankly, is the sort of statement that makes you want to quit philosophy class. It comes off as the high-toned academic version of used-car-salesman fraudulence. And it throws the movie out of whack. “Spinning Man,” like a film noir turned into a video game, winds up crafting a rickety atmosphere of deception out of the question of guilt or innocence. The result keeps you guessing, but it forgets to keep you caring.