Wednesday, April 24, 2024

This is the story of the hurricane


Directed by Brian De Palma
Written by David Koepp and Brian De Palma

Spoilers: high, sort of

For a figure as heavily identified with the New Hollywood as Brian De Palma, it is perhaps a little surprising to recall that his most sustained period of success was actually the 1990s, though one supposes that it was the end of this decade, where he got to play with the biggest budgets of his career, that finally set him up high enough for it to actually cause permanent, debilitating injury when he fell. That process began here with Snake Eyes, a movie that made $103 millionnot an embarrassing sum in 1998, but on a budget of $73 million, that pulls us past "underperformer" and right up against "flop."  Meanwhile, not that such a thing mattered by 1998, but it did even less well with critics, except for De Palma's steadfast allies at Cahiers du Cinema, who, to be sure, mattered even less.

This is infuriatingly unfair, for so many reasons it's difficult to know exactly which one to start with, but since I mentioned the film's cost, why not that?  There simply aren't many movies in its budgetary class in the late 1990s whose budgets were better future-proofed, or which put their money up on the screen more robustly.  Conveniently, we can just point to De Palma's own next movie, Mission To Mars, which cost $30 million more, and mostly for a lot of CGI that hasn't aged well.  But Snake Eyes looks every cent of what "$73 million" should look like in 1998, despite telling a fairly small, sometimes downright intimate story, because it's telling that story with enormous style and against an enormous practical backdrop in ways that were already on their way out by the end of this decade, putting its money into decidedly different and more old-fashioned things: real-right-to-the-back-of-the-walls location shooting, well-sited by and supplemented by numerous elaborate sets from production designer Anne Pritchard; a cast of thousands, wrangled in and out of those locations; and its legendary camerawork, that made shooting in real-right-to-the-back-of-the-walls locations with casts of thousands even more challenging even as that story made it necessary.

It's all the more remarkable because, infamously, its budget didn't entirely get to the screen: it still had a whole, expensive climax that was dependent on CGI, but got scrapped thanks to the disfavor of executives (a reconstruction is available on YouTube that is plainly not what it would've looked like in fully completed form).  De Palma, a more moralistic (and moralizing) filmmaker than he's ever been given credit for (if "moralizing" is something he'd actually want credit for), had preferred an ending for his film that's even more old-fashionedif much of the production is more like the 1960s than the next millennium, his ending was more like the 1920s, invoking the literal wrath of God by way of a Great Flood, consuming the guilty and rewarding the innocent.  It tends to leave De Palma and David Koepp's story (Koepp received solo screenplay credit) with serious unhammered nails, like a film-long insistence on gestating a mere tropical storm into a catastrophic hurricane in ways that don't quite pay off, and a denouement that appears to reference events that didn't happen. In fine 90s tradition, Snake Eyes boasts a swell end-credits song about the movie we just watched, which Meredith Brooks seems to have written on the basis of its original climax.  So, rather than a multi-million-dollar act of God, the actual finale winds up instead a clipped, cobbled-together proposition, of the sort that isfair enoughbeneath what we've become accustomed to after almost 98 minutes of riches.  But after seeing Snake Eyes many times, I appreciate its punchiness anyhow, the way that, keeping to De Palma's custom (perhaps taking a little inspiration from R. Budd Dwyer), a camera is as much the mechanism for our finale as a gun.  It maybe rings truer to the characters, too, even if it's not nearly as much poetic justice for the villain, whose fate would've otherwise taken the form of his greatest fear.  I still love it right through, even if I'll obviously always be curious what the bombastic "real" ending could've been.

And that more-or-less concludes the "serious problems" section of the review.  I regret leaping to the end before even talking about the beginning, but in this manner we've somewhat replicated one of Snake Eyes' more negatively-perceived features, namely that it gives itself away too quickly.  This is more like the opposite of a problem: I can only assume a lot of people somehow understood themselves to be watching a murder mystery, as opposed to a suspense thriller, though it's difficult to comprehend how, especially since within minutes of opening, you'd clock Snake Eyes as a pretty shitty mystery.  By the same token, within minutes of opening, Snake Eyes has made itself known as a very bad-ass thriller from the workshop of cinema's greatest thriller craftsman.

We begin on a dark night in Atlantic City, where the gathering storm has not dimmed the town's excitement for the big fight between heavyweight boxing champion Lincoln Tyler (Stan Shaw) and his challenger Jose Pacifico Ruiz (Adam Flores), held at the arena attached to aviation magnate Gilbert Powell's (John Heard's) casino.  In attendance, and psyched as hell, is Det. Rick Santoro* (Nicolas Cage), a corrupt sleazebag, as we discover when, between excitable Cagisms, he shakes down his pet drug merchant (Luis Guzman) to make a hefty wager on the bout, at least attempting to do so with literal blood-soaked money, though his bookie (Michael Rispoli) refuses that particular bill.**  Nevertheless, Rick's here as a guest of USN Cmdr. Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), his best pal since boyhood though a much straighter arrow, the latter serving as the head of the security detail of the biggest name in the crowd, Defense Secretary Charlie Kirkland (Joel Fabiani).  Things now escalate quickly: Dunne wanders off; a woman in an unconvincing yellow wig (Carla Gugino) says something faintly menacing to Kirkland that Rick wasn't, at the moment, registering; Tyler is knocked outor was he?, since when the gunshots ring out, Rick sees him wake up; and blood starts spouting everywhere, Kirkland having taken a bullet through the throat, while the "blonde," Julia Costello, has taken one through the arm, the victims of an assassination carried out by "a Palestinian terrorist," now a corpse, but orchestrated bywho elseCommander Kevin Dunne.

Except for the last few clausesstarting with "Julia Costello," whose name we don't learn for a whilethis is only the first thirteen minutes of Snake Eyes.  But those first thirteen minutes are a doozy, still Snake Eyes' biggest legacy, an extraordinarily condensed "first act" (Snake Eyes barely has an "act structure" as such and operates very close to real-time), delivered by what was, in 1998, almost undoubtedly the most complicated long take in film history, a title it possibly retained until the advent of Russian Ark, which is also asterisked, what with Russian Ark not being a narrative film, so it's sort of a cheat.

Not that Snake Eyes doesn't cheat: it's not a "real" long take.  It's seven or eight separate shots with hidden edits, more akin to Hitchcock's Rope (a couple of its cuts are, in fact, the very same "back of a man's jacket" transitions, albeit less crude***), and it occurs to the De Palma fan that Rope has secretly been the fourth Hitch looming over his filmography this whole time (alongside, of course, Vertigo, Psycho, and especially Rear Window), it just took him thirty years to riff on it in anything like a direct manner.  It's much less direct than De Palma's usual Hitchcock pastiche, obviouslyconsidering Dressed To Kill, I'm not sure we'd like to see the direct riff on Ropebut a movie made out of long takes, revolving around two best friends, one of whom suborns the other into a 'perfect murder' in a closed, controlled environment, is going to point to Rope at least as a starting place, though De Palma's "single location" is vastly bigger.  Naturally, there's at least as much Rear Window in this onethey're always Rear Window.

But I was saying: what an opening thirteen minutes, with De Palma and his cinematographer Stephen Burum following Rick as he bounces Cagelike into the arena, during which time all of our principals (and virtually all of our secondary players) are introduced; and while it's noticeably efficient, screenplay-wise, it's the kind of efficiency that makes me smile, for considering its breathlessness, the characters and setting are exposited with startling grace.  So it's just damned excellent storytelling, even before we get to the tense charge that such a thing unavoidably builds up with each further second you spend becoming aware that this isn't normal, so something awful must be about to happen, with significant choreographic effort taken to heighten that feeling even more; and that's all on top of it being superlative filmmaker gamesmanship for its own sake, existing above everything to look cool, and show off what this director is capable of.  The downside is that because this is the beefiest thing Snake Eyes ever doesbecause it's about the beefiest thing imaginableit can't "top" it, so it doesn't try, and what's happened is that the film is remembered for just the bitchin' technology of its first thirteen minutes.  (And Snake Eyes, incidentally, gave us that particular Cagism.)

But then, if I've used Cage's adopted surname as an abstract description three times already now, it should tip you off that I think it does a lot more than bitchin' technology.  The persistent criticism is that it's a story completely subservient to the showboating technique, as if they couldn't be in symbiosis, but I will grant this: it's not the sturdiest plot.  It's implausibly baroque without, in turn, being twisty, so it gives you too much opportunity to fixate on the silliness of Dunne's way-too-many-moving-parts scheme, whereas his motive feels like it lands in some gulf between pure maguffin and something meaningful.  Rather, it just feels too line-item to be a proper basis for Sinise's otherwise-vivid screen villainy: the SecDef and the whistleblower must die because they're going to... bury a prototype anti-missile system, which not only doesn't work yet, it doesn't even have a neat name yet, like "Iron Dome."  ("AirGuard"?)  If Snake Eyes had been made a few years later, one suspects that De Palma would've had something meatier to chew on.  Anyway, step back from the movie a little further, and you might sourly realize there is no fucking way this could be how the assassination of a cabinet member would be handled.

And who cares?  It's not a political movie, as such, but for all the flashy pyrotechnics, it's a human one, even, obliquely (and playfully), a philosophical one.  On the former count, there's tragedy hereif Dunne's plot was overcomplicated before, it becomes exponentially moreso because he's potentially not lying when, late in the game, Sinise rasps out, "If it were anyone else but me, you'd be dead," and Rick's own investigation bogs down in the moral sludge because our hero does, in fact, consider turning over his witness/victim to his murderous friend.  There's something fascinating at the core of Snake Eyes, basically a morality play that seems to take an unwholesome delight in its own cynicism, wherein the goody two-shoes becomes capable of any evil because he's the goody two-shoes, while within the corrupt sewer rat there are ethical dimensions which he hates like hell to find out were there all along (and, fittingly enough, because few De Palma movies ever manage to be unbridled in their optimism, it's his good deed that gets him punished in the end).

What this means, film-wise, is that Snake Eyes winds up way more of an actor's movie than a series of big-dick camera movements ought to entail.  Cage is the show, inevitably: he's his own flashy pyrotechnic, capable of commanding the screen with his weirdness in ways that match the brawny photography tit-for-tat, maybe even making it that much more challenging because Cage's live wire is all over the place.  Yet it's still in the universe of "Cage making Cage choices for a reason"Rick Santoro's flamboyant "trash king" pretensions are embodied perfectly just by what Cage is deciding to do with his hands, before we even get to his line reads (though we shall consider how he verbally jumps on his scene partners, even in pivotal plot scenes, causing Gugino and Shaw, the actors themselves, some evident surprise, which winds up good for their performances, too).  In the end, it's grim to see a character so joyously amoral run out of things to laugh about.  But everyone is good, right on down the cast list (and I don't know if it's meta or only a cute coincidence that the pathetic broadcaster who successfully bribes Rick for access is played by... Kevin Dunn, only missing an "e").  And sometimes they're great: Shaw is, anyway, Tyler's particular flashback revelation becoming a miniature boxing tragedy in its own right, driven by Shaw's huge despondent eyes, about a champ who's realized he's sold his soul.  So the most rankling thing about Snake Eyes could be that Tyler basically vanishes, though at least not before a bitterly amoral shrug, contained just to Shaw's large shoulders while the rest of him stands stock-still, that might be the best little piece of physical acting here.

So, yes, Snake Eyes never tops its world-beating opening gambit, but who needs it to?  It certainly never lets up by any other standards.  A half-dozen "best visual gesture in a lesser movie" moments occur to me; I'm not going to list them, though on the level of individual beats there's a great deal of flexibility and variation.  Sometimes this doesn't need to be anything but corny visual jokes or hoary symbolism (that giant American flag that may exist just to be reflected on Cage's face at a crucial moment is now backwards, maaan), but I'm not knocking such moments.  I'm praising the diligence they represent, of a director supremely invested in making his movie dense, and detailed, and fun.  (At the risk of "just listing," on this nth watch I noticed for the first time how much unusual-for-this-cinematographer shallow focus gets used during Julia's whole escape-from-the-casino sequence, not just her myopic POV shots after she loses her glasses; in a different vein, there's a lot of softness on Gugino's shots generally, the better to make her the angel on Rick's shoulder.  I should mention this is all lovely cinematographythe color reproduction is divinenot just technically brash cinematography.)

But at any level, De Palma's got an exceptionally cinematic thriller going on, even by his standards, with showy, complex blocking across the length and breadth of casino floors, and camera movements that disregard such trivialities as walls and ceilingsit offers all the near-misses and near-escapes you could ask for from any thriller, its suspense given voice even during its dialogue-light three-person pursuits by Ryuichi Sakomoto's terrific score (itself an old-fashioned thing, but perhaps not so much Hermannesque; it's very 70s and ornate in its suspense cuesmy first impression was "it sounds like an Airport that doesn't exist"but this isn't the limit; it's maybe not the main reason that Snake Eyes winds up with surprising emotional punch, but it's a reason, keeping to the De Palma tradition of having scores that seem to genuinely mourn what his narratives almost invariably occasion).  Meanwhile, Rick's investigation is structured to keep bringing us back to those opening thirteen minutes, with each new revelation (and, of course, not all of them are true) bringing new angles and new techniques to "what we already saw."  (There's a splitscreen that dares you to manage the perceptual bandwidth, at the exact same moment that Rick is attempting to widen his.)  In combination, they show us how much that long take missed, so that we realize, maybe belatedly, how tightly lashed we were to Rick's own narrow view.  So those opening thirteen minutes wind up doing that work, too, being all magisterial and hypothetically unblinking, yet hiding as much outside its frame (sometimes inside its frame!), allowing for a murder pulled off in full view of 14,000 people who, like Rick, simply weren't looking.

Which is what Snake Eyes gets at without too loudly insisting on it, using a camera that sometimes actually is like the eye of God, and sometimes only seems that way, but still represents a tool that can, however imperfectly, transcend the even starker human imperfections of bias, distractibility, and moral laziness; such is, of course, Rick's journey, as he surveys footage that points him towards truth, suggesting that the world is now too thoroughly seen for the old bullshit to survive.  (This doesn't seem to be correct, but that's not De Palma's fault.)  Such has, obviously, been this director's principal theme for his whole career, arguably since his childhood (his first photography involved stalking his adulterous father, and while he's always been aware of the paranoid implications of surveillance, if he ever valued privacy as an end in itself, he presumably wouldn't have done that).  Maybe it's not his best work on this theme: there's the metacinema of Blow Out, the nervy sleaze-as-heroism of Body Double, the autobiography of Dressed To Kill; but Snake Eyes strips it down to its most elemental, procedural features, and it might be his most formally perfect exploration of it.  Has there ever been a filmmaker more optimistic about the panopticon, or even just the power of paying attention, than Brian De Palma?

Score: 10/10

*Between this and a lot of the location shooting being at the then-Trump Taj Mahal, it's pretty weird.  The Taj Mahal did not directly adjoin the recently-closed Montreal Forum in real life, by the way.
**We also see it later and it's, like, a one, though this is primarily for the "cherry tree" symbolism.
***And its first thirty seconds is pre-recorded material on a television.



    Some YouTube nerd should split-screen De Palma's set-pieces with their shameless copycats. Spielberg stole Snake Eyes' hotel room bird's-eye for Minority Report's apartment raid; Minority Report also borrowed Blow Out's editing-room meta and added Schubert music. Would Spielberg even have made Minority Report without De Palma's unrealized project The Demolished Man?

    I guess Tarantino probably credited De Palma's Dressed to Kill for Kill Bill's nurse at some point, but has he ever credited it for Jackie Brown's shopping mall Steadicam? That set-piece is almost shot-for-shot the museum scene from Dressed to Kill.

    1. The Minority Report one is pretty egregious given the proximity (my understanding is that the car factory sequence originates as an unused idea for North By Northwest). It is funny to think that De Palma could be stolen from the way Alfred Hitchcock could, too. That said, as far as I can tell Tarantino has always been upfront about what a big BDP fan he is.

      I've only recently become aware of The Demolished Man, seem like something I should read at some point (as a general rule, I should read more early 20th century and mid-century sci-fi and fantasy).

    2. IMO, The Demolished Man is pretty meh for a while before going absolutely batshit in the climax in the best way. As far as classic sci-fi goes, my highest recomendations would be Asimov's Robot series and I Am Legend. Also, while you do already seem to be an HG Wells fan based off your reviews of the WOTW films, The First Men in the Moon is one of his very best and seems to quite overlooked today, so definitely check that out sometime if you haven't already.

    3. Yeah, I'm not as complete on Wells as I'd like, but I've enjoyed what I have read. Whenever I do First Men In the Moon (the Nathan Juran film) I plan on reading it beforehand. I have some assumptions that the Wells novel isn't as slack.

      Asimov is an enormous and shameful blindspot. I kind of blame my middle school English class which included an Asimov short story, the one that Shyamalan appears to have ripped off for Signs, which I feel was a poor foot forward. One of these days, though, probably after I've at least read my fill of Clarke.

    4. I haven't read every Asimov story, but I do think I've read all the ones that are famous enough to be taught in class, and I have no idea which one you mean. He didn't write much about aliens in general. Maybe you've got him confused with some other author?

    5. Nope. "Rain, Rain, Go Away," September 1959, Fantastic Universe.

      In fairness, I treated it vastly too literally as a twelve year old.

    6. Whoops! I guess you're right there, though I have no idea why any story that obscure would get taught when there are so many other Asimov options.

  2. If you haven't watched it, I recommend Polanski's cod-British variation The Ghost Writer. The plotting and German CGI/locations are enjoyably ludicrous, while the casting and the matching of score to sound effects are unironically great. At the beginning of the movie, listen for Big Ben in cinema's most ghoulish and hilariously-cast job interview scene. "Good luck..."

    1. Heh, a Roman Polanski movie about how overzealous America is at detaining people. Coming soon: a Harvey Weinstein production that takes a deep dive into how tragically limited access to the appellate system can be for the average criminal defendant.

    2. As with Cul-de-sac and Bitter Moon, cultural Anglophile Polanski seems to love cackling sadistically at Brits with a post-imperial anti-American humiliation fetish, like his ex-Blairite co-author on The Ghost Writer.