De Palma is out in theaters now (you can buy your tickets here). In honor of the documentary's legendary subject, we're kicking off a week-long look at the director's classic - and not so classic - films.
Throughout his career, Brian De Palma has grappled on screen with systemic corruption, particularly in the government and the military, but those themes were never explored so perfectly as in 1998’s Snake Eyes, his bravura ode to widespread immorality. To say there’s a lot going on in this movie is putting it mildly. De Palma employs his hallmark visual aesthetic here to pornographic excess, leading many to see Snake Eyes as little more than an experimental exercise, style without substance. But that’s just a surface reading. While De Palma is clearly having the time of his life shooting these long takes and toying around with perspective, it’s all in pursuit of pinning down the corrosive nature of graft.
Snake Eyes is set in Atlantic City the night of a huge boxing match, on the eve of a disastrous tropical storm. At the climax of the big fight, the Secretary of Defense is assassinated, sparking a sprawling mystery involving a wide cast of characters and a surfeit of points of view. The lead detective here is Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage), a scummy operator who just happens to be a cop. He only has such good seats to the fight because his best friend Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise) is a Navy Commander there to run the Secretary’s security detail. Worried about his straight and narrow pal’s complicity in this quagmire, Rick puts his crooked methods to work to figure out the best narrative to keep Kevin clean.
At the outset, the core of the film (the fight itself) is obscured in favor of conflicting strands of perspective orchestrated around the central plot. Current events are shot as long, rarely interrupted takes, allowing the mystery to play out in the wide, before cutting away to first person recollections of the night’s events. It’s De Palma taking Rashomon one step further, placing you directly in each character’s POV. This method makes every suspect or person of interest’s account feel true. We are, after all, watching their tale unfold before our eyes. The technique proves useful, especially after you realize how few of these alibis are rooted in fact.
These lies have ample cover to hide under, as there’s an embarrassment of visual information in every scene, from the long shots with in-monitor exposition sprinkled throughout the background from the news to the security cameras in the casino zooming onto a bit player’s ID to discover his room number. It’s the kind of omniscient narrative power De Palma exploits better than most of his peers. The more details unravel and the closer we get to the truth, the less thrilling the film becomes, but the use of split screen at the film’s apex to merge all the conflicting POVs together is brilliant, like a Russian nesting doll of concentric revelations, with the varying feints dissolving into one unimpeachable truth.
But deception is at the very heart of Snake Eyes. Rick is lying to his wife and his mistress. Julia (Carla Gugino), the mysterious woman at the center of the drama, is hiding her true identity. Lincoln Tyler (Stan Shaw), the legendary boxer defending the title that night, lies to his fans by throwing the fight to pay off gambling debts. Worst of all, Kevin is lying to Rick. He spins an intoxicating yarn about being distracted by a buxom redhead right before the shots were fired. But that flame haired bit of red herring is just misdirection, as Kevin is the central figure behind the assassination.
It’s the kind of twisty double cross usually reserved for the final act, but in true Hitchcockian fashion, De Palma and screenwriter David Koepp dispense with this reveal surprisingly early on. You the viewer are aware what Kevin is up to long before his best friend is looped in. Not unlike the mid film revelation in Vertigo, the real tension is in finding out how Rick, an avowed scumbag, will react to the shining white knight he calls his better turning out just as crooked as everyone else in this shitbag town. Alongside his work in Bringing Out The Dead, Rick Santoro is essentially Nicolas Cage’s high octane audition for his eventual role in Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant remake, while Sinise plays the slightly unhinged straight man. It’s clear that Rick knows he’s a piece of shit, but he respects Kevin, and would do anything to back up his friend.
In their first scene together, when Kevin is needling Rick about hiding things from his wife, he says “Maybe if she knew the rules, she could play the game, too.” Rick is so used to knowing all the moves and being so dialed into his town that when a bigger game is at play, one with further reaching consequences and higher stakes, he doesn’t know what to do.The exact moment Julia tells Rick what’s really going on, he’s furious. It’s perhaps the most realistic reaction to finding out a twist in a crime movie ever. He’s not angry at the betrayal. Not at first. He’s just pissed that he has to know the truth. He would be just as blissful never knowing his best friend is no more honest than he is.
The disillusion Rick feels about his favorite boxer throwing a fight pales in comparison to learning his best friend isn't the paragon of valor. He's crooked and comfortable with the world he lives in but when reality creeps in and forces him to face his sin, he’s at a loss. He tries to spin the story with Julia, the way he spun one with Kevin, to try to find a plausible lie he can escape into, but one small detail deflates that and he’s left to accept this new world he's forced to live in. The comfortable deception between these two friends ends. One grows a conscience and the other reveals he's never had one in the first place.
In De Palma, the recent documentary about the filmmaker, he explains that his original ending for Snake Eyes was for the impending hurricane to destroy Atlantic City, and it’s the ending that would have made the most sense. The petty corruption of thieves and gamblers doesn’t seem to bother De Palma like the large scale fraudulence of the military industrial complex, but throughout the film he displays a world so flawed and so broken as to be irreparable. His watchful eye looms over the proceedings like a disappointed God, and God’s only recourse is to destroy what He can no longer bear.
When Kevin defends the faulty missile defense system at the heart of the film’s conflict, he says you don’t abandon a system because of a few bugs. You fix it. Is that humanity talking in the face of a higher power preparing to wash away his fractured system? Unfortunately, that isn’t the film’s true ending. As released, the film closes on Kevin being outed and imploring Rick to corroborate his fiction, but Rick refuses, telling him there’s no “we” anymore. A lie needs more than one active participant and Dunn is left alone.
The film rambles on for another incongruous ten minutes, sailing further away from the rest of the picture’s thematic throughline. Turning his back on Kevin isn’t enough to redeem Rick, as the overlong epilogue posits, despite the unearned romantic catharsis tacked on like a misshapen bow in the last scene. But as originally envisioned, Snake Eyes is a thrilling look at a world too far gone for salvation, and unless you're a sincere Femme Fatale apologist, the last great film Brian De Palma made.