Tuesday, September 7, 2010

There's Worse Things To Be

A line of dialogue heard at the very beginning of Brian De Palma’s 1998 thriller SNAKE EYES where a TV news reporter is told to refer to a hurricane as a tropical storm in her report for purely financial reasons announces right off the bat the film’s theme of how the truth gets covered up in the world. It’s a clever way to begin this pre-9/11 look at military conspiracies covered up by the military and how terrorism was sold through the media so it should for every conceivable reason announce the start of a Brian De Palma masterwork but that unfortunately doesn’t happen. On the long list of De Palma films SNAKE EYES isn’t anywhere near among the worst but it certainly has to rank as one of his most flat-out disappointing. All of the elements are there—an idea that seems perfect for the director, strong actors, enigmatic females, powerful visuals, a virtuoso opening shot that attempts to out-virtuoso anything he’d shot before. I can imagine it all flowing just fine on the page and it probably played great in the dailies. Even individual scenes work strongly on their own yet when the pieces are assembled together something just doesn’t work, like a machine that’s been put together precisely according to the instructions but the parts still aren’t able to fit somehow. I almost can’t figure it out what the problem is. Some of it—hell, a lot of it—works just great for the first hour but where it all leads to not only feels like kind of a dramatic dead end it winds up hurting the effectiveness of earlier scenes as well. It’s clearly a key title in the creative evolution of De Palma’s stylistic thrillers but it felt like an unfortunate fumble to me when I saw it on opening night way back on August 7, 1998 and many of those problems have never completely gone away. It’s not a bad movie—it does, after all, offer too many examples of vintage De Palma being as good as he can be—but it is an unsatisfying movie, one that practically falls to pieces as the celluloid moves through the projector. I can barely understand why.

In the middle of a massive hurricane, gleefully corrupt Atlantic City detective Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage), married and with a mistress, is attending a heavyweight championship bout at what will be the final event held at the legendary Atlantic City Arena before renovation. Rick has snagged his ringside seat due to his friendship with U.S. Navy commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise) who is in charge of security for the Secretary of Defense, also there to see the fight. Several minutes into the bout and just as a mysterious blonde woman in white (Carla Gugino) sits down to speak to the Secretary, shots ring out, mortally wounding the Secretary and causing panic in the arena. With the presumably lone assassin killed almost instantly by Dunne, Rick immediately begins his investigation which involves several odd circumstances surrounding the moment the shots rang out, including a mysterious gorgeous redhead, some strange behavior from the heavyweight champ and what the woman in white was saying to the Secretary. Rick quickly pieces together that a possible conspiracy led to the event but as he conducts his search for the missing woman throughout the arena his close friend has his own secret agenda in mind.

There’s so much to admire in SNAKE EYES (screenplay by David Koepp, story by De Palma and Koepp) that it almost becomes like breaking down the formula of a complex algebra equation to figure out what went wrong. De Palma’s visual mastery is always present through the various setpieces but the problems are such that maybe they can only be traced back to the story’s conception and any flaws found there. Much of the story is set within about an hour-and-a-half, roughly the length of the film itself—there are no shots of clocks to give things a ‘real-time’ feel (I can’t help but wonder if that was originally part of the plan) but it’s probably pretty close. This sort of story trope would work great in a more noir-tinged storyline (and there are elements of noir at the root of this film set in the sleazy gambling world of Atlantic City) but it doesn’t quite fit with what’s here. Rick Santoro stumbles onto the first threads of figuring out this massive conspiracy and cover-up almost by chance but since he puts it all together practically right away it doesn’t seem like it was much of a plan by those involved (the marketing was also at fault here—the trailer reveals way too much). The level of needed complexity that would make figuring things out through these multiple flashbacks of the assassination genuinely satisfying doesn’t happen with the boxing side of things—certainly adding to the noir feel—doting too long on the anguish being displayed by boxer Stan Shaw that does damage to the momentum even before the thirty-minute mark, the first sign that something is going very wrong. And since just about everything is known practically by the time the film is only half over it gives it all a feeling of, is that it? Not to get heavy into spoilers but after Nicolas Cage retrieves Carla Gugino from the hotel room and brings her into the stairwell (about the 57 minute mark) it’s almost like there’s nothing left to happen, no excitement left to come and when Nicolas Cage has to figure one last detail out for himself the audience has been placed way ahead of him already. One key piece of the twisty puzzle is revealed before Cage learns it--I can imagine De Palma and Koepp arguing over whether we should find out when Cage does while they were writing the script and I’m not sure they aren’t correct in how they played it but the pieces as they are don’t quite go together as well as they should.

The story really becomes something else when we hit the hour mark—not about uncovering this conspiracy but about the character of Rick Santoro, corrupt but carefree cop, looking himself in the mirror about the concept of loyalty and friendship, realizing that he can’t go this extra step for literal blood money that’s being asked of him. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the theme, it’s just that the execution feels so lackluster. Maybe this empty feeling in the third act was an issue during production which at one stage involved a tidal wave resulting from the hurricane that figured into the climax—years ago I glanced at a script which included a scene description that was something like, “A MASSIVE TIDAL WAVE ENGULFS THE CASINO FLOOR” (I wish I had that script right now). All this was shot and, from what I’ve been told, previewed (some of this even survives in the credits for ILM at the end, like one for “Digital Wave Research & Development”) though ultimately replaced with the somewhat underwhelming confrontation we have now that ends too quickly to be completely satisfying—it winds up playing a little bit like how the climax of De Palma’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE might have gone if it stayed in that baggage compartment without ever going up on top of the train for all the helicopter action. Isn’t it correct for a Hitchcockian thriller to give us a Hitchcockian climax? It feels like the movie shrivels up when it needs to explode and when we get Nicolas Cage actually referencing the discarded ending we never saw in the final scene (“I keep dreaming I’m back in that tunnel, underwater. Only in my dream I drowned.”) it feels a little like the movie has thrown up its hands, knowing that it can’t be saved. There’s something off about it all, as if the dream logic De Palma can be brilliant at is lost here in favor of maybe trying to make the scenario too realistic and there are nevertheless many nagging questions about the plausibility of it all, like the arena filled with thousands of panicking people emptying out just a little too quickly or Carla Gugino wandering around this huge crowd for even thirty seconds looking as bloodied as she is in the wake of the shooting. BLOW OUT was about something that had to do with the real world as well, but that film was also about reconciling it with the film world bringing the two styles together. Here, the themes of flashbacks and looking closely at the truth behind things, going through the events of the assassination over and over just doesn’t resonate. Even the score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, which sounds perfect for a De Palma film, is somewhat more analytical than the emotional delirium that the scores by the likes of Morricone and Donaggio provided for him in the past which raises the question, how important is it for a De Palma film to strictly adhere to the concept of realism? Is that an approach he should be leaving to other directors?

All of this said, it’s important to say how much there is to admire here—seriously, there are camera pans in this movie that I find exhilarating to rewind and look at again. The 13-minute opening shot, following Nicolas Cage into the arena leading up to when the fight begins is truly awe-inspiring, a genuine triumph for De Palma, staying right on Cage the entire time with the cuts that are no doubt hidden in there never diminishing the achievement in the slightest. De Palma and Cinematographer Stephen H. Burum’s roving camera through the arena/casino/hotel setting is vividly laid out, with a hypnotic effect developing from the repeated nature of the assassination (that huge American flag draped over the arena offers more shades of BLOW OUT) and the tracking of Carla Gugino via security cameras through the casino floor up into the hotel is a particularly exciting section, complete with one long, steady movement literally over the activity in various hotel rooms during the search for her. There’s continuous invention from De Palma all the way through like when the camera switches from a first-person POV to outside of that within a single shot and the film actually gets away with it. I even like the feel that the recurring use of blue and purple gives to the overall effect. The promise of some of this extreme cinematic skill makes it all the more disappointing when it never becomes as visually complex as it needs to be to thrill or as narratively complex as it needs to be to satisfy. The running time is 98 minutes, fairly brisk for De Palma—were things streamlined to make the density of the information easier to consume for audiences? Since we know everything by a certain point, there’s nothing left for things to build to in the third act except for a beaten-up Nicolas Cage wandering through the hallways like a poor man’s Terry Malloy at the end of ON THE WATERFRONT and it’s not even clear what the character hopes to accomplish at this point. The film ends with an extended take featuring a conversation between two characters leading to action that continues under the end credits (while annoying pop song plays), finally settling on a minor revelation at the very end (actually, a little like the final shot of SISTERS), but you could hardly blame anyone for not remembering what it’s even a callback to. In the end, maybe that says all that needs to be said about SNAKE EYES—a film about looking closely into a certain image, ultimately leading to a revelation that turns out to not be much of anything at all, so it never really resonates as it should. De Palma’s feel of pure cinema is present in every single moment but the unsatisfying nature of the final result makes it more depressing than if it had been just directed by some hack.

Looking at the film again now, it’s very clear for me how the film in some ways plays as if the De Palma of BLOW OUT, BODY DOUBLE and CASUALTIES OF WAR is trying to atone for the fates of the women who have been treated as innocent lambs to the slaughter in his earlier films. It takes a lead character who has no interest in being a hero but is intent on doing what those other protagonists have failed in and in the context of De Palma’s filmography SNAKE EYES is maybe trying to move past whatever cynicism found in earlier films towards a more hopeful feeling for the future (“I’m naïve,” says someone at the end. “There’s worse things to be,” is the response). The director’s slightly insane RAISING CAIN from 1992 seems to throw up its hands at the madness of it all but SNAKE EYES offers the idea that there is some good to be found in even the most corrupt places where everyone has an angle (Rick has no real ambitions beyond maybe being Mayor of Atlantic City someday) and that maybe trying, hell, demanding that certain people aren’t done away with can really be worth it in the end. The theme continued in 2002’s FEMME FATALE from the director, but while the feeling of hope that the Clinton-era SNAKE EYES strives for may seem more at home in the years before 9/11 its hints at military/industrial cover-up involving a faulty missile system do come off as somewhat prescient now, a reminder that even when De Palma wants to suddenly seem optimistic the feeling can’t entirely take in the corrupt world he presents. These are lots of tantalizing threads, but unfortunately not much of an end result that knows what to do with them so there’s never much of an impact. The final twenty seconds of BLOW OUT wouldn’t have had much effect if the movie it had been up to that point wasn’t as powerful and whatever the ending of SNAKE EYES is it doesn’t ever really comes close.

The lead actors are certainly strong right through when the film begins to falter. Even the stairwell scene where things start to come apart is undoubtedly well played as it happens. As this corrupt cop in an impossible situation, Nicolas Cage enjoyably brings his patented gonzo insanity to the role, with his carefree nature correctly draining away the deeper his character gets in all this. Gary Sinise has a somewhat trickier part to play—I’m not sure the script gives him the necessary support to make things totally believable, but I do enjoy that robotic way he has of walking down those hotel corridors like he’s the T-1000 or something. Carla Gugino’s pageboy haircut is a slight comedown after that blonde wig but she’s ideal both as a figure of mystery and the rational representative of the real world later on, a strong early example of just how good he can be. Character actor Kevin Dunn has a sizable supporting role as a reporter for the pay-per-view outlet covering the fight, providing the odd experience of watching an actor play scenes opposite someone whose character, Sinise’s Kevin Dunne, has practically the same name. John Heard bellows loudly while lightning crashes overhead as the Trump-like developer, familiar faces Luis Guzmán, Mike Starr & David Anthony Higgins turn up to remind us this film was made in the late 90s and the enticing Jayne Heitmeyer with all that red hair is the mysterious Serena.

In the end, SNAKE EYES really just feels like an unfortunate performance by a master conductor, a film where something is undeniably missing even while the director’s visual brilliance is as alive as ever. Seriously, I kind of want to look at the opening shot or certain other sections again right now but something seems to have gone wrong at some point whether in the pursuit of clarity, issues that arose during editing or just flaws in the basic concept. Maybe it was also a case of the director miscalculating his own approach to cinematic delirium versus the real-world issues of friendship, loyalty and cynicism that the movie was addressing. I’m not really certain what the problem ultimately is, only that it doesn’t stand up on its own. The final line of dialogue spoken follows through on what gets stated at the beginning so the film’s attachment to theme holds through to the end. It’s the style that falters somewhere along the way, the loss of that love-of-cinema feeling we get from De Palma at his most daring so there’s never any real satisfaction from the result. And if that feeling isn’t there then all we’re left with is an ordinary time-killing thriller. Which isn’t always a bad thing but when the name Brian De Palma is involved we’re always waiting for that high, that hit of pure cinematic nourishment of the sort that only he can provide us. And if it’s not there in its most pure, uncut form than it doesn’t do us any good at all so we’re just left sitting there, wondering what happened to this film that had so much promise. As good as some of it is, as great as it can be to stare repeatedly at that jaw-dropping camerawork once the film ran through the camera and the dice was rolled something wound up going wrong so, sadly, we’re left with nothing. Snake Eyes.


Unknown said...

"It’s not a bad movie—it does, after all, offer too many examples of vintage De Palma being as good as he can be—but it is an unsatisfying movie, one that practically falls to pieces as the celluloid moves through the projector. I can barely understand why."

I couldn't agree more! And this is the problem I have with the film. After such an exhilarating opening that sets everything up and introduces all the characters, the films seems to gradually run out of steam like someone slowly letting the air out of a balloon. I can remember watching it for the first time and really wanting to like it and hoping that De Palma would figure out some way to salvage it at the end but alas, no dice. As you point out, there are some good things going on this film - De Palma's trademark virtuoso camerawork is still in full effect but I felt let down by Carla Gugino's character that felt underdeveloped and not at all like other De Palma heroines.

Oh well. Still, you make some great arguments for both the merits and problems of this film. What a fantastic write-up!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Maybe it's difficult to develop a character too much in what's practically a real-time story but I think you're right in that there maybe could have been something else to her. I don't think it's necessarily Gugino's fault who I think does a good enough job with what she has.

That aside, it sounds like we're on the same page on the film and very glad that you enjoyed the piece, thanks!

Unknown said...

As always, it's a pleasure to read your take on a De Palma film. You've been on a bit of a roll with the director of late, please keep it up. While I didn't see you at the most recent De Palma night at the New Bev, I have a sneaking suspicion that yours was the voice laughing loudest at the end of the "Be Black Baby" segment of HI, MOM!

I hope that everything is starting to sort itself out for you. You are far too talented a writer to stay unemployed.


Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thanks, John, very nice of you to say. I'll probably do some more De Palma soon, but I don't know what yet. I was actually thinking about BONFIRE--seeing HI MOM for the first time actually shed some new light on that one--but I just haven't gotten to it yet.

And I honestly don't know if I was the voice laughing loudest--I loved it, but part of me badly wanted that sequence to end and I mean that in the best possible way!

Unknown said...

It contained, as far as I can tell, the most brutal comedic set-up in the history of film. But what a hell of a pay off.