By Jeremy Carr.
As with much of his work, especially in the last 15 years or so, one’s response to Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes (1999) was to a large degree established even before the film’s release. Coming off the commercial success of Mission: Impossible two years prior, this 1998 feature was in many ways a return to form for the filmmaker. There were certainly flourishes of his established formal virtuosity in the Tom Cruise-starring blockbuster, but thematically and narratively, Snake Eyes was reminiscent of De Palma’s more (in)famous thrillers. As such, expectations were set, but they cut both ways. To De Palma fans, those who stuck by him through generic departures and critical and financial disasters like Wise Guys (1986) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Snake Eyes was undeniably going to please; this was the territory where they most liked to see him work. Conversely, for those who had had De Palma in their sights since Dressed to Kill (1980), Scarface (1983), and Body Double (1984), with condemnations of excessive violence and misogyny, Snake Eyes wasn’t going to produce any converts. To be sure, it didn’t contain either of these disapproving features (whatever their validity in the first place), but minds, in both cases, seemed to be made up. When it comes to Brian De Palma, his devotees are seldom disappointed, just as his detractors are never satisfied. Rare is the alteration, even more so in recent years. In any event, Snake Eyes was a project perfectly suited to De Palma’s own sensibilities.
With a screenplay by Mission: Impossible scribe David Koepp, based on a story by he and the director, the set-up for Snake Eyes is classic De Palma. A detective uncovers a multilayered conspiracy following the assassination of the secretary of defense during an Atlantic City boxing match. Duplicitous personalities, ulterior motives, and conflicting points of view are rampant, and De Palma does what he does best to stylishly convey a sense of confusion, suspicion, and desperation. As the detective—the verbose, egotistic, and frenzied Rick Santoro—wild-eyed Nicholas Cage is initially overbearing and almost embarrassing to watch. The over-the-top behavior is thankfully subdued when Santoro unearths the plot and learns of the involvement of his old friend, Commander Kevin Dunne (an at times robotic Gary Sinise). The audience is made aware of this revelation about 45 minutes in, but Santoro is only gradually convinced, the seeds of doubt having been planted by Julia Costello (Carla Gugino), a young woman who first tried to warn the secretary and soon becomes Santoro’s lone ally. This tactic of having the audience privy to information before certain characters is admittedly conventional, but it does work well with Snake Eyes, particularly as the film’s main themes deal with the visible and the hidden, the known and the unknown. After all, the “eye in the sky” camera that records the nefarious actions of Dunne, finally convincing Santoro, only captured that image because no one knew it was there.
With no apparent conscience to speak of—personally or professionally—Santoro is suddenly stricken with a moral compass and finds his allegiances conflicted. Dunne based his illegal actions on the assumption that Santoro could be bought, no matter the situation. He banks on his friend’s carelessness and penchant for corruption, and while we may feel certain that Cage will end up the “good guy,” there is a brief moment of hesitation that causes some doubt. Santoro is not exactly easy to get behind (to be sure, he is one of the least endearing characters Cage has played), but ethical misgivings notwithstanding, he knows what he’s doing and he’s good at what he does.
De Palma utilized split screens early in his career, and it was a tool he returned to repeatedly, for good reason. The technique is particularly functional in the hands of a filmmaker so concerned with multiple points of view (his, the audience’s, the character’s). Snake Eyes is no exception, with one split screen sequence taking place about halfway through the film. But here De Palma ups the ante by also incorporating diverse diagetic vantage points as well as a temporal and spatial shifting of narrative revelation: simultaneous actions recorded or recalled from a variety of viewpoints. Key sequences are repeated, but each is different as each is dependent upon those relaying the events. Not all perspectives are equal, nor are they necessarily reliable. It’s reminiscent of the varied points of view in something like Rashomon. Here though, the points of view also belong to a multitude of cameras. Security and television cameras have recorded much of the drama, and in doing so, they provide continual points of reference and revelatory possibility. It’s impossible for any one person, including the spectator, to have witnessed everything, but with these various devices—the individual recollections and the recordings—Santoro is able to piece together what transpired; likewise, the audience assembles a wider range of narrative and geographic understanding.
De Palma once said, “The camera lies 24 frames a second,” and with that in mind, Snake Eyes is an exceptional examination of what we see, who governs it, how, and why. At the beginning, we are first shown the action via three television monitors: three different cameras feed three different screens, each distinct and each mediated and controlled by unseen parties, but none the “true” event. The film is at once concerned with the idea of multiple views, but is also illustrative of manipulative and illusory appearances. The plot is driven by false impressions and deceit. The boxing match contains a fake victory, a thrown fight. The missile test that is the background catalyst for the political intrigue was manufactured to distort perceptions and prompt legislative action. Everyone in the film either has an angle or is suspected of having an angle. Stories are spun, from the actual nature of the weather to the varying accounts of what really happened. When Julia first appears, before it’s made clear what her role in the whole ordeal is, she is seen wearing a blonde wig—even one of our protagonists is in disguise at first. The opening shot of the film, an apparent 12-minute take, is itself an illusion. In fact, this sequence, a bravura example of cinematic choreography in any case, contains no less than eight cuts, each hidden by camera or character movement.
Speaking of this opening, while today’s visual movie dazzle seems to typically consist of special effect sequences bolstered by heavy CGI, there’s still something to be said for the elaborate camera movement unaided by computer technology. Fluid long takes around characters and their environment are a uniquely cinematic display of technical and artistic proficiency. Snake Eyes surely benefits from this stylistic choice, as amidst the crowd of fight fans and through the corridors of the casino, De Palma’s camera winds and weaves incessantly and gloriously. With Stephen H. Burum as cinematographer (his seventh collaboration with the director), the camera adopts points of objectivity, as in the crane shot shooting over the top of various hotel rooms, as well as the subjective views of several key characters. Especially early on, with a dizzying array of lights, movement, and people, De Palma’s prolonged takes and intricate maneuvers convey the bewilderment that drives the action. When this type of aesthetic is competently executed and is done so with a purpose, the results can be extraordinary. And when Brian De Palma does this well, he does it as well as anybody.
In the director’s own words, Snake Eyes is “a very Brian De Palma film,” even if it would signal more divisive work to come. As for Nicholas Cage, by 1998 he was on a roll. An Oscar in 1995 for Leaving Las Vegas led to a string of successful and generally entertaining action films—The Rock (1996) and Con Air and Face/Off (both 1997)—and the romance, City of Angels, released a few months before Snake Eyes. Today however, Cage’s performances, and their reception, have been more erratic. He has made some excellent movies since, even receiving another Oscar nomination in 2003, for Adaptation, but many of his choices have left audiences and critics scratching their heads. On the other hand, De Palma’s success rate since the turn of the century has been negligible across the board, except of course to those ardent admirers.
Jeremy Carr is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for the publications Sound on Sight and Moving Pictures Magazine.
Snake Eyes was recently released on Blu-ray by Paramount Catalog.