Snake Eyes

Sometimes one has to make a conceptual leap in order to enjoy a filmmaker’s work. I didn’t enjoy Barry Lyndon for years, until I noticed that Kubrick was copying certain compositions directly from paintings from the era he was depicting. Once I understood that he was making a movie, a 20th-century art form, of a story from the 18th century, using the images and rhythms that people of that time would have understood, the movie suddenly became hugely interesting, sweeping and involving on the level of The Shining or Clockwork Orange, and is now one of my favorite Kubrick films.

In the case of Snake Eyes, I find that once I give up the notion that I’m watching a movie about human beings, with any connection to logic, it similarly becomes quite enjoyable. I don’t mean that as a snarky comment.  It’s just that if you’re expecting a conventional thriller on the level of, say, The Bourne Identity (a movie I love), you’re bound to be disappointed.  You wouldn’t expect a conventional gangster picture from Godard or a conventional noir from Truffaut, yet when DePalma plays with genre even a little bit people sigh and roll their eyes.

Pure DePalma, the movie is about a handful of suspenseful situations that DePalma can use to weave his magic spell of dread, bitterness and cynicism.  It begins with a stunning, 12-minute take that follows Nicolas Cage around the main set.  Not just a show-offy trick (like, say, the impressive 5-minute take at the beginning of Bonfire of the Vanities), the take offers an encapsulation of the entire narrative, the moment that we’re going to spend the rest of the movie scrutinizing from different points of view, some authentic and some not.  Hugely skillful in his manipulation of our sensibilities, DePalma puts key events at the edge of the frame or even out of frame (hey Paramount, this DVD is the crappiest transfer I’ve seen since 1941), things that only make sense when we see them again from another point of view.

There are two long expository scenes, one where Nicolas Cage literally stops the movie in the middle of a hair’s-breadth chase scene to say “Let’s sit down and talk for a second,” and the other where The Bond Villain Explains The Whole Conspiracy To The Protagonist At Gunpoint, and you can sense DePalma unhappy with having to include these scenes at all.  He knows he has to or else the movie won’t make any sense, but he shoots them in completely straightforward ways, this from a director who otherwise doesn’t seem to know the meaning of the word “straightforward.”  It’s like he’s saying “okay, fine, you need this scene?  Fine.  You sit and watch the two actors explain the story, I’m going out back for a smoke.”

My favorite credit crawl, second only to Seven.

While the ending hinges on an absurd confluence of coincidental events, I give DePalma credit for not making the ending as happy as he could have.  It’s also worth noting that the conspiracy theory that the movie hinges on, which seemed silly and baroquely implausible to me ten years ago now sounds sober, well-reasoned and straightforward by today’s political standards.

I would very much like to see DePalma go whole hog and make an entire movie in one take, like Hitchcock tried in Rope, but with a story on this scale.  Snake Eyes practically plays out in real time anyway, I don’t know why he didn’t try it here.

BONUS WEIRDNESS: Nicolas Cage plays a character named Rick Santorum, and there is a Richard Santorum thanked in the end credits.  Likewise, Gary Sinise plays a character named Kevin Dunne, and there is a scene where he is interviewed by another actor whose real name is Kevin Dunn.
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3 Responses to “Snake Eyes”
  1. craigjclark says:

    (hey Paramount, this DVD is the crappiest transfer I’ve seen since 1941)

    Not only that, this is also a film that would probably be reevaluated if they ever bothered putting out a director’s cut.

    You know the hurricane that’s forecast early on and doesn’t really turn out to be anything more than a minor inconvenience at the end of the film? Well, in De Palma’s original cut, it was a much bigger deal — and a major effects sequence. I know this because I once worked with an actor who played a TV cameraman in the film and had a much more important role before the studio made De Palma go back and reshoot the ending. (I wonder if that’s when they made put those two expository scenes in as well.)

  2. urbaniak says:

    I had to check the IMdB to verify that Cage’s character is named Rick Santorum. It couldn’t be!

    Unfortunately he doesn’t share a name with Pennsylvania’s oleaginous wingnut Senator. Cage is merely Rick Santoro.

    I watched that movie in a hotel room many years ago but I don’t remember much about it. You have yet again inspired to seek out a film I may never have sought out again.