Seemingly under the impression that being enigmatic is the hallmark of cool, the writing and directing team of brothers Josh and Jonas Pate have made sure that nothing in their second film, Deceiver, is as it appears to be. Not the stolid police detectives, Braxton (Chris Penn) and Kennesaw (Michael Rooker), who are administering a lie detector test while trying out a variation of the good cop-bad cop routine. Or the man strapped to the machine, James Walter Wayland (Tim Roth), the wayward heir of a prominent Charleston, S.C. businessman.

The question at hand is whether Wayland murdered and dismembered a prostitute (Renee Zellweger), and the movie unfolds in a series of interrogations and atmospheric flashbacks, but remains baffling straight through to the end.

Perhaps the biggest question is how a cast this interesting wandered into such a muddled film (including Ellen Burstyn, looking like a drag queen as the glitter eye makeup-wearing queen of the underworld, and Rosanna Arquette as Rooker's prim yet sexually charged wife).

The most troubling aspect is Wayland, a snobbish, absinthe-drinking epileptic. With a questionable sexual orientation and high IQ, he seems to be channeling both Leopold and Loeb. The Pates' script equates his physical condition with criminal behavior in a particularly cheap way &emdash; they also dabble in facile psychological diagnoses &emdash; perhaps in a misguided effort to flesh out painfully one-dimensional characters.

What the Pates have going for them is a bold visual style, excellently shot by cinematographer Bill Butler (The Conversation, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). The images are arresting and immediate, but meaningless. They seem to be aiming for some variation of Lynchian surrealism a la Lost Highway's questioning of identity, but all Deceiver offers is surface flash and dizzying camerawork.

Josh and Jonas Pate - 28-year-old identical twins whose first film was the straight-to-video The Grave - have created a cinematic version of a trompe l'oeil painting: there's the illusion of depth, but it's really just a clever facade done by talented tricksters. In Deceiver, the real deception takes place between the filmmakers and their audience.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].

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