Reflections of the Third Eye
22 April 2013
Snake Eyes (1998)
Now Playing: Creedence
Topic: S

Popcorn quiz: Brian De Palma made Snake Eyes because he (A) Wanted to do a single-take sequence that surpassed the one Scorsese had in Goodfellas; (B) Was curious about how Carla Gugino would look in tight silk clothes; (C) Figured he could use some of Nicholas Cage's hyper intense cocaine buzz presence while the guy was still A-list material?

These are all valid reasons for making a movie, especially if you've paid your dues three times over like BDP had. Whatever his intentions, the end result is wholly and uniquely identifiable as his creation, which means that I enjoy it. In fact, I enjoyed it more on the second viewing than the first, and this is not due to some dubious theoretical insight like the intellectualized film student snobbery frequently hung around the director's neck.

Au contraire, ma freres, I actually took greater note of the storyline and characterization this time. Not that it's particularly outstanding, but it's there for the viewer's attention, and I believe the dazzling single-take exposition offsets the balance of the entire movie on the first viewing. This extremely complex and magically realized tracking shot will probably be the only aspect of Snake Eyes to linger in the cinema annals, even if De Palma allowed himself a few loopholes (four or five camouflaged cuts during the 20-minute sequence) to make his mad enterprise work.

Film students and movie-lovers alike enjoy the virtuosity and sheer fun of this grand opening, and unlike some of BDP's earlier showcases it is both appropriate to the theme and context of the movie (a big night with lots of tension in the air) and a very effective exposition which introduces the major characters and a number of details relevant to the mystery conspiracy that is the main plot element. The only problem, then, is that the viewer may still be digesting De Palma's tour de force and maybe hope for even more, while the storyline is rapidly evolving into new intricacies.

The movie carries its comic book exaggerations with pride, and the sense of aesthetic playfulness is brought home by a dazzling use of bright colors in basically every shot, until the appropriately dark and murky ending. More movies should look like this, a true feast for the eyes on a level of pure, non-intellectual perception that makes it almost psychedelic, in the sense that hallucinogens can make each color look a little brighter than usual. Equally appropriate is the obvious use of studio sets for the entire movie, making everything look shiny new and slightly unreal. The casino where the action takes place is basically one gigantic set piece, and it's easy to imagine the fun De Palma and his assicoates had in designing the sets in combination with the fluid camera-work.

In accordance with the title there is a strong focus on eyes, in various symbolic and physical representations. Gary Sinise's sinister military officer turns the metaphorical 'snake eyes' of the title into an actual facial aspect, becoming less human and more cold and deviously reptile as the movie progresses. Perhaps this ocular theme justified use of POV flashback sequences (some which are actually 'false') that occur three times, but they are largely unsuccessful and distracts the viewer by inserting new dimensions to little effect. In typical BDP fashion the inspired creativity goes one step too far, but its more of an annoyance than truly damaging.

Nicholas Cage was at the peak of his career around this time, and his hyper-active police detective seems determined to outdo the egocentric cocaine excesses seen in Face/Off. Unfortunately we are never told why his character behaves like a race horse on steroids. One might argue that Cage's performance is in line with the general larger-than-life tone of the movie, but it fails to add or expand on that tone, and makes for an awkward transition to the weary, disenchanted person he becomes towards the end. Gary Sinise on the other hand acts like he understands the movie completely, and while his performance also becomes weighed down by the exaggerated demands of the script towards the final scenes, the convincing military persona and gradually demasked 'snake' of the title is a major asset. Carla Gugino is very comic book-like as a reluctant heroine, actually more comic book-like than in Sin City, and while charming in presence her character isn't given enough respect by script or direction. The rest of the cast isn't bad but strangely forgettable, in view of how De Palma on occasion loads his movies with good casting and quirky minor parts.

If you've only seen Snake Eyes once, see it again. I'm not so sure how it would hold up for a third viewing, though. 7/10

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 2:08 AM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:42 AM MEST

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