Based on a novel by George Harrar, Simon Kaijser’s Spinning Man establishes a potentially juicy premise for a potboiler, in which a sheltered philosopher, Evan (Guy Pearce), and a crafty detective, Malloy (Pierce Brosnan), engage in a battle of rhetorical wills that tests the mettle of their respective ideologies. Promisingly, these characters aren’t quite the stereotypes that one might anticipate from a genre thriller.
Evan is a handsome intellectual accustomed to privilege and given to quoting Wittgenstein, but Pearce invests him with an evasive flightiness that gradually comes to suggest a man who’s rationalized himself out of his own basic abilities of comprehension. From other mystery films and novels, we might expect Malloy to descend on Evan like a pit bull, regarding the latter’s philosophical quandaries with working-class resentment, though Brosnan steals the film by informing Malloy with a thick, intimidating heartiness that’s filtered through curiosity and melancholia. Brosnan poignantly allows us to sense that Malloy doesn’t want Evan to be guilty of killing a young woman, Joyce (Odeya Rush), whose disappearance drives the narrative.
Certain moments throughout the film allude to the sublimely gamey thriller that might’ve been. There’s a supple, subtextually layered scene in Evan’s classroom where Malloy looks at the chair that Evan has instructed his class to rationalize into existence and asks, “What chair?”—a chillingly simple retort that illustrates Malloy’s craftiness, and education, while alluding to Evan’s possible failures of perception. Another similarly troubling scene toys with the idea that Evan may have imagined his own daughter into existence, yet these moments prime the audience for a mind-fuck that never quite arrives.
Kaijser and screenwriter Matthew Aldrich don’t bring Evan and Malloy’s contrasting methods of divining truth into total opposition. Spinning Man is ultimately tethered to the strictures of a procedural thriller, as it’s rife with functional dialogue and plotting as well as forgettable aesthetics, which cumulatively reduce the existential calisthenics to filler. A subplot between Evan and his wife, Ellen (Minnie Driver), is particularly obligatory, reducing Ellen to a suffering font of exposition, while one of Evan’s students, Anna (Alexandra Shipp), is relegated to the role of alluring jailbait and potential red herring. Still, the film isn’t entirely without interest, for allowing Pearce and Brosnan to paint haunting portraits of men lost in their own heads, and for alluding to the gulf that resides between language and reality.