Brian De Palma
1 Hr., 38 Mins.
Snake Eyes April 5, 2019
elieve everything except your eyes,” warns the tagline on the poster for Snake Eyes (1998). The movie in store, a pleasurably ludicrous conspiracy thriller directed by Brian De Palma, lives up to the omen both literally and figuratively. Literally in that one of its characters, an analyst who knows too much named Jennifer (Carla Gugino), at one point has to run away from some villains without
her big wire-rimmed glasses, which causes everything in front of her to appear blurry. Figuratively in that the corrupt cop at the center of the movie, Rick (a wonderfully over-the-top Nicolas Cage), will not get a true idea of the conspiracy driving the movie until he’s heard multiple accounts from witnesses who aren’t him.
Snake Eyes owes a lot to The Killing (1956). That film, which is an eminent heist thriller, was about the fleecing of a money-counting room at a racetrack, and is still distinctive for its multi-view storytelling style. It traversed time and focused-on characters for the sake of offering an as-full-as-possible understanding of the motivations, and the minutiae, that pushed the all-important crime forward.
Snake Eyes diverges, mostly, in that it isn’t about a heist. It instead orbits around an attempted assassination of the defense secretary at a boxing match, with the Rick character trying to figure out whether the crime is connected to a Lincoln-level conspiracy. But Snake Eyes and The Killing nonetheless feel entwined. By incorporating The Killing’s storytelling structure into the main investigation so closely, De Palma makes his movie feel less like a nod and more a mimicking — in line with his decades-long habit of artistically borrowing.
The difference lies in De Palma’s own stylistic tricks, like long-tracking shots (beautifully offered during the opening) and split-screens, as well as his welcoming of scenery-chomping acting performances. (In comparison to the foam-mouthed Cage, Al Pacino, who was so feral in 1983’s Scarface that we wouldn’t have been surprised if he ate one of his own limbs for a midnight snack, is by comparison more demure than an ingenue.)
Much of the allure of Snake Eyes has all to do with the way it's the movie equivalent of an expert mountain biker who prefers to ride, for miles, on the edge of a cliff rather than on the feet-away paved trail. The film always seems bound to go over the edge, to get too enamored of its own confidence. Yet it manages to avoid disaster precisely because of the unreasonable certainty driving it. De Palma, the sanguine stylist, directs with total assurance, even though David Koepp’s screenplay is convoluted and unduly tricky.
I was less concerned with how the narrative was moving along by the last act of the film and more so with how De Palma was going to helm the next moment. Such is why so many of his films continue being captivating in spite of their imperfections and dated characteristics. Just how De Palma directs throws in a buzz or two in itself. In Snake Eyes, what matters is not the content per se but how the content is packaged and shipped. As a conspiracy thriller it’s excessively tangly, but as a stylistic exercise it’s nearly a tour de force. Here, that works. B