If you were to review Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes in just one word, it would have to be the sound of air being let out of a balloon: Pfffffffft.
It starts off with a virtuoso Steadicam shot that runs for 15 minutes or so (although I’m certain there are blind edits during whip pans at various moments), indulging itself in Nicolas Cage’s motormouthed performance as a corrupt cop who’s about to become point man at a murder scene. This is great, entertaining stuff — I gave the first reel an A-, and then watched the whole picture fall apart.
The movie takes place more or less in real time, with the action confined to the Atlantic City Boxing Arena and the connected casino/hotel complex next door. Cage has hooked up with his pal Gary Sinise, a Navy officer in town on business, protecting the U.S. secretary of defense en route to an important meeting. First, they’ve decided to check out the night’s championship fight. A knockout punch and a couple of gunshots later, the secretary is dead.
Immediately, matters are complicated. The assassination takes place at the end of that long tracking shot I described above, and we’re seeing everything from Cage’s point of view, meaning we’ve got exactly as much information about the shooting as he does. Sinise was off chasing a suspicious-looking redhead when the gunshot was fired, leaving Cage alone at ringside. Meanwhile, a gorgeous blonde had shown up and handed off a document to the secretary, getting herself shot in the process. She lost her wig and fled the scene. Cage — who had several grand riding on the fight — seems alone in sensing that things aren’t adding up in the ring or at the crime scene. And for the next 20 or 30 minutes, Snake Eyes moves like a greased pig, as De Palma allows Cage to unravel the action of those key moments, from a variety of viewpoints.
As a cinematic exercise, this is aces. At its best, it’s an amped-up take on Rashomon, Kurosawa’s essential introduction of the subjective camera into cinema vocabulary — that is, the camera represents a point of view, and that point of view may well be at odds with what “really” happened. Thus, when you see an action occur on screen, you have to consider the position of the camera-narrator in evaluating whether you’re seeing an accurate representation of the action.
If anything, I’d like to have seen De Palma do more with this particular gimmick. As is, there’s only one big “revelation” during the course of the picture — it comes way too early on, and a passing acquaintance with standard Hollywood thrillers will allow you to guess what it is just by looking at the cast list. Other chances are blown, too. One character lost her glasses in the confusion surrounding the shooting, and her subjective point of view is represented by an out-of-focus camera. You’d expect De Palma to have a field day with that particular handicap later on, but it never happens. Now, to be fair, the ending of the picture seems to have been rather harshly edited at the insistence of Paramount honcho Sherry Lansing — a few lines of dialogue in the very last scene refer to an underwater climax that didn’t make the release prints. Still, Snake Eyes runs out of steam well before the last reel.
As a con artist who suddenly encounters his innate sense of integrity, Cage’s character is adrift. As his longtime friend and linchpin for the movie’s moral crisis, Sinise plays an underwritten part expertly but unconvincingly. The most appealing character in the film may well be Carla Gugino’s mystery woman, who’s just trying to get out of the building alive and return to her normal life. But just as soon as we learn her story, which is crucial to the mystery at hand, De Palma and screenwriter David Koepp lock her up in a little room while Cage goes off to look at some more videotape. The scene where he finds it is as cliched and tedious as the one that follows, in which the villains take Cage outside and beat the crap out of him.
There’s one of the problems at the heart of the film — the mystery is so very ordinary. Appropriately enough for a movie that’s so keen on insisting that we can’t trust anybody, especially not our friends, De Palma treats videotape as the ultimate arbiter. Whenever a critical plot point is in doubt, there’s a convenient camera recording the “real” action for posterity. While it’s amusing to think that the canny orchestrators of such a conspiracy wouldn’t notice an overhead camera recording their every move, it’s also pretty ludicrous. I know that De Palma’s making an overarching statement about voyeurism and corruption, but if he’s using the thriller as a framework, I expect him to deliver what we’d expect from a good thriller, and then lay on the metaphor.
All that having been said, De Palma the stylist is mostly in very fine form. His relentless kineticism and delight in all the things you can do with a movie camera and a well-constructed set are very much in evidence here. And I’m not from the school of criticism that roasts him for valuing camera stylistics over realistic human characters. Just because nobody has quite figured out how to use a powerful personal style to illuminate the corners of the human mind the way Hitchcock did doesn’t mean I blame De Palma for trying.
Historically, De Palma movies have created their own slick, unforgiving moral universe, in which cruelty, sleaze and baseness are the defining factors. Even Mission Impossible presents Ethan Hunt as a crackerjack operative betrayed and deceived by his friends. And from Carrie to Casualties of War, there’s a real sense of outrage that’s twisted by De Palma’s facility with giving cinematic form to sadism. The ending of Blow Out, for instance, is as existentially horrifying and heartbreaking as anything in contemporary Hollywood film — at the same time, it often angers viewers who see it as just a sick joke.
That’s not to say that his movies aren’t cruel, themselves. As muddled as Body Double is, there’s a single murder scene that’s as appalling and brutal as anything in a Dario Argento film — that is to say, it’s a great bit of filmmaking. (Like those Dario Argento films, though, it’s not attached to much worth speaking of.)
De Palma also takes a real delight in literal voyeurism, from the famous high-school girls’ shower scene that opens Carrie all the way through to, well, to Gugino leaning forward in a dangerously low-cut bra in not one but two bathroom scenes in Snake Eyes. It’s all justifiable in that it fits De Palma’s thematic obsessions, but it also makes the films unsettling. Watching a De Palma film, you almost feel as if this smart but slightly offputting man is sitting in the theater chair next to yours, leering at the pretty girls and taking wicked pleasure in every moment of bloodletting.
If it sounds like I’m being hard on De Palma, I’m not, really. Cinema should be provocative, and De Palma has utilized provocation to stunning effect. It’s just that there’s something personal about the sex and violence in De Palma’s movies that makes you feel just a little embarrassed in your role as complicit viewer. Of course, that’s sort of the point, and key to his on-again, off-again brilliance as a filmmaker. In fact, it’s possible that Snake Eyes, which was written and directed for a PG-13 rating but received the stronger R instead, would have benefited from a little more of the old Grand Guignol. At least it might have helped make up for the lack of enough good ideas to fill its screen time.
Directed by Brian De Palma
Written by David Koepp
Cinematography by Stephen H. Burum
Edited by Bill Paknow
Starring Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise, and Carla Gugino
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1