Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes

(The title of this post gives whole credit, unjustly, to a great director for the entire creation of this movie; whatever agreements or disagreements I have with auteur theory, lack of creditation for David Koepp’s work as co-writer on the movie has been omitted in the heading for simple reasons of limited text space, rather than any intentional slight.)

A movie that may not fully work, but that has an underestimated density: if its hoof is to be given the damning tag of “failure”, it is a branded creature that I find more compelling than the movies other people enjoy so much, their enjoyment estranging me further from them. One might point to the bravura sequence of a staggeringly long near uninterrupted shot (there are a few discrete cuts), which is unbookended by any virtuoso piece at the end. We also might want a more direct confrontation between the hero and villain, like the shoot-out in Carlito’s Way, etc. Both of these, however, are a result of the movie’s deliberate intent, which is more subtle and intricate than might first be realized, an examination and re-examination of what the audience wants in such a movie. If there is one overriding theme, it is the distance between the inherent morality of divine vision, and the amorality of a vision that approximates the divine, our contemporary observational technology, that allows us to see near anywhere, yet carries no moral ideal, except that which we ourselves bring. The various surveillance and tracking equipment shown in this film, now nearly fifteen years old, is quaintly antique: yet no one would assert that the more deeply peering eyes of our time have made us better men and women, only that they may have given us one more tool of cruelty.

We open in the restricted frame of TV, a single camera, before finding ourselves shifting out and away to the larger scale of the movie, giving us a freedom of movement unlike anything of the stationary camera outside the stadium. There is a horrific, random storm outside, yet the audience has chosen for refuge the staged chaos inside. That it is staged is to be expected, what only changes is what chaos ends up being staged. It is the last fight at this arena, to be replaced by the Powell Millennium casino. Gilbert Powell (John Heard) has made his money in defense contracts for weapons, which gives him the money to build casinos. The merger of these two economies, state funded weapon building and get-rich circuses, are to be merged in the design of the new casino, a gambling den inside a missile:

Snake Eyes

Powell, of course, is the man behind two rigged games, the fixed missile test and the fixed fight which gives cover for the killing.

In the opening outside sequence, we are shown the poster for the fight, dominated entirely by the picture and name of the champion, Lincoln Tyler (Stan Shaw).

Snake Eyes

What gives this man his prominence is entirely his fighting skill, which is devastating: his nick is “the Executioner”. He has the strength of an epic hero, without any heroic ideals; despite misgivings, he is entirely a mercenary, first throwing the fight, then giving out a brutal beating to detective Ric Santoro (Nicolas Cage). The fight at the beginning mirrors what takes place in the film itself, and the fact of that the man on the poster is expected to be heroic is paralleled with Santoro’s character. Nicolas Cage is the man on the movie’s poster, so there is the expectation that he must be heroic, yet what we see of him for much of the movie is entirely the opposite. He is a corrupt cop, an infidelitous husband, a man who shakes down drug dealers, an expert in the pay-off and the cover-up, who without compunction helps his friend in covering up what takes place during the assassination. This is not to say he is not without sympathetic qualities, or that he is uncharismatic. The men and women of life, outside any dramatic structure, are of the same difficult mix, their best details not making the venality and callousness of the rapacious any less repellent. It is a simple question of how we choose to see this man who has been placed in this role, played by a movie star, who is expected to be a hero without being a hero at all. That he does perform a heroic act is not to be taken as expected or assumed, an action that is heroic not because it is performed by a man in a heroic role, but because of the action itself.

That the audience wants a clear division between heroes and villains is played on in one of the movie’s first lines, delivered enthusiastically and very well by Cage.

Snake Eyes

SANTORO
THERE HE IS!

Snake Eyes

This makes me think of a point in Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution, which Donato Totaro’s “Time, Bergson, and the Cinematographical Mechanism” reminded me of: in theory, it should take a child no time at all to solve a picture puzzle because it has already been conceived before the puzzle has even been opened. Santoro can implicitly identify the villain for us already because a villain has already been decided for us. The flux of deeds which make any judgement of a life in progress a difficult task is avoided, and not wanted, in most entertainments, and we are given an evil adversary, pre-conceived.

That the actions of Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise) are villainous is beyond dispute; that we are necessarily good because we are not this man is an open question. For we accept without difficulty that Santoro must be good, must be heroic, because he is the lead, played by a movie star, and we ignore all his cruelties. This is very much the way Dunne might be seen as well, and certainly how he sees himself: he must be good because he is a decorated Navy commander, because he has acted virtuously in the past. The very tautology an audience might make of any movie lead, that his actions must be heroic because he is a hero, might be made by Dunne. Yet where the audience grants this liberty because the character is played by a star, and due to his position in the narrative, Dunne believes this for substantial reasons: he has in fact performed heroic deeds, has no doubt saved the lives of many men and women. That he has done so does not prevent him from committing heinous acts as well.

So, this movie is about a conflict of two men, who are almost doubles of each other, best friends since their childhood in Atlantic City. The movie audience arrives to watch this pre-arranged conflict, just as the spectators come to the stadium to watch the fight. This is a movie full of characters who reflect each other, and the fighters, Lincoln Tyler and Jose Pacifico Ruiz, mirror Dunne and Santoro.

Tyler is an expert, efficient professional who has contempt for the show-boating of Ruiz. Tyler must be seen to lose this fight, a fight he can easily win, so he can achieve the larger goal of a pay-off. Ruiz must simply play the part he’s expected to, and Ruiz fails at that. He gets knocked out by an easy punch, and his own knock-out punch doesn’t connect. Dunne has contempt for showboater Santoro, looking upon him as corrupt and incompetent.

SANTORO
Why did it have to be me? Why’d you want me next to you?

DUNNE
One, I needed a cop to back up my alibi. Two, I knew you could be bought if anything went wrong. No offence, pal, but I never thought
you’d get as far as you did.

Dunne must appear to lose his own game, allowing the defense minister to be killed, for his own goal, the AirGuard system spared from defense cuts. Dunne fails to play his part as well, not because of any lack of skill, but because, for once, he acts virtuously.

Dunne and Santoro mirror each other as well. Though the movie opens with Santoro as a man with a flamboyant, ostentatious persona, this is only one aspect of the man. He changes from his gaudy, now blood spattered, shirt, into a more spare white one, then shifts into finding the girl and we see him as someone different. He is a corrupt cop, but also a diligent, cool-headed investigator, more of a kindred spirit to Dunne than the naval officer expects him to be. Where Santoro begins the movie in a guise of hopped up lunacy and moves to the firm devotion of an ideal, saving one woman’s life, Dunne is a man who holds to a particular code that becomes more and more lunatic as the film progresses, where any life can be expended for future lives saved.

I won’t go into the aesthetic details of the lead-up to the assassination and the assassination itself; suffice to say, it’s very well put together. I make the small note, possible overlooked, that the key members of the security detail are the ones involved in the conspiracy. The man with the beacon who Donne runs down for his lack of attention, and the man sitting right behind the secretary.

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

This is a movie about finding a moral vision equal to our colossal technical sight, and so it’s intended irony that the most heroic character whose moral compass remains unshaken throughout, is rendered near blind from the near beginning.

Snake Eyes

We arrive now at the issue of the momentum and pace of the movie, which slows down after this sequence. This, I believe, is not due to any lack of skill of the creators, but inherent in the structural constraints of their goals. The audience storms out of the arena to leave the arena, just as we, watching, expect to move on to another distraction.

Snake Eyes

But, no: the audience is kept inside, to be identified and questioned. The arena is now a crime scene. Rather than move on to more mayhem, we will be placed in stasis, forced to examine the very details of the sequence.

Snake Eyes

The rest of the movie now mostly takes place in what feels like the backstage of a theater, empty of the color and motion filling the assassination sequence, that scene now played over and over in the participants’ memories. The closest to spectacle are the moments in the casino and hotel, yet here the major players are now intruders. Where before they were enraptured by the fight, now they are indifferent to the frenzy of the gambling floor and the dionysian possibilities of a hotel suite, their focus only on the past, the killing in the arena.

A good place to continue this analysis is with the character of the whistle-blower. It is she, more than Santoro, who is the true hero of the movie. That the hero is a she and almost nameless, are intertwined details, of which the movie is very well aware. They are crucial in terms of what the audience expects from this genre, and what the movie gives us instead. Unlike the other two leads, Rick Santoro and Kevin Dunne, we are never given her full name until the very end in the concluding newscast, but her heroism should require us to speak of her by name, rather than a more anonymous label, and so we do so.

JULIA COSTELLO

This is a movie where women are given roles either as sexual supplicants or domestics. There is the wife and mistress Santoro talks to on the phone, and afterwards talks about with Dunne.

DUNNE
How’s Angela?

SANTORO
Fat, fantastic. I love her.

DUNNE
What about the other one? What’s her name? Candy?

SANTORO
Monique. Skinny, mean, expensive. I love her.

There is the ring girl who Santoro feigns interest in, then ignores almost immediately afterwards, and has forgotten about by the time of the shooting.

Snake Eyes

SANTORO
My lucky number seven.

RING GIRL
Gee, that’s a new one, mister.

SANTORO
You are sunshine on a stormy day. You should work in the casino.

RING GIRL
Oh, I’m gonna. I mean, I wanna.

SANTORO
Do you know how to deal blackjack?

RING GIRL
No.

SANTORO
All right. Call me. I’m Rick.

SANTORO
Hello. What? Who are you? Where? My lucky number?

Two women in similar sensual dress, but only as a guise for their true missions in the arena. There is the redhead (Jayne Heitmeyer) who serves as an object of distraction, a bosomy long legged beauty, who the camera pores over as nothing but a sexual being, but: she is something more, a well-trained soldier and co-conspirator. When we see her after the tumult, she is out of costume, in the same sexless, genderless uniform of her fellow male military member.

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

Julia Costello is similarly in disguise, in a blonde wig and a low-cut white outfit. She is there for a specific and important objective, yet she is immediately approached by Santoro as another sexual figure, like the ring girl.

Snake Eyes

SANTORO
Hey, I dig affection, baby, but not while I’m driving.

COSTELLO
Oh, I’m sorry.

SANTORO
That seat’s taken. (sees her face) Oh, but you can sit here.

COSTELLO
Well, I’ll just need one minute.

SANTORO
Me too.

After the defense minister’s death, Costello flees to the bathroom to change. The camera drifts up to the bathroom sign, and I don’t think this is a simple need for beat in a cinematic rhythm, but to make clear what designates Costello’s position more than anything else: her gender.

Snake Eyes

We next see her, above like gods, as she washes herself of blood. There is some symbolic importance in this, as blood recurs over and over in this movie, with Costello able to wash the blood from herself – it is not her who had any party in this killing, it was caused by others. However, there is no material importance in this shot; we do not drift into the bathroom when Santoro changes his shirt, but we intrude here. The audience is granted the ability to drift into the ladies’ and float above her as she changes, and here is the asymmetry of the power of divine vision without divine purpose. Able to look anywhere, we expect to be able to look at this bosomy woman when she takes her shirt off.

Snake Eyes

This same moment recurs, in the suite bathroom, again with us positioned looking down on this character as she changes, again to no purpose, except for the sating of our own appetites.

Snake Eyes

This erotic perspective is absent anything in this woman, other than her body itself, compelling it. She is insistently an anti-erotic figure, first seized by her mission, then in fear of her life, a woman whose broad gestures of opening her blouse and fanning herself I read as those of someone unfamiliar in the arts of flirtation, now forced into this role to save herself.

Snake Eyes

COSTELLO
Um, who’s, uh–who’s winning?

GUEST
Looks like the number four horse, Daddy’s Hobby.

COSTELLO
Yeah? Ooh, God, I’m hot. Do you have air conditioning?

GUEST
Huh?

COSTELLO
In your room, air conditioning.

GUEST
Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Costello ends up in this man’s hotel room and, again, she is approached sexually.

Snake Eyes

When she rejects this, and speaks of the danger she is in, the man asks her to leave. If she has no sexual purpose, she has none at all. Her progression in dress, I think, is not trivial. She begins in an all white outfit, a figure of purity, then she is forced to put on a sexier dark blouse as we gawk at her, in a room clearly labeling her as female, then, finally, she ends up in a light colored men’s shirt: it is she who will be taking on the traditional role of the male hero in this movie, even if she isn’t allowed to fully play it. For even after all this, she is not given full freedom of movement. What she most dearly wants is to leave the arena, but instead is confined by Santoro, when she would be far safer if she were let out.

That this character goes nameless for almost the entire movie is a counterpoint to what her true role: she is the nameless, disposable beautiful woman, just like the ring girl, but nothing like the ring girl, because ultimately she is a better, braver woman than either of the two men at the movie’s fore, a combination of their best qualities without their sins. She shares the same devotion to the well-being of the navy as Dunne, but without his lunatic solipsism, unable to see anything other than his own devotion to the cause. She has Santoro’s deductive skills, able to see that the test is fake, without his venality. She doesn’t want a pay-off, she just doesn’t want men and women to die.

She is, to borrow a phrase from H.G. Wells’ autobiography, “a solid rock of ethical resolution”* and this necessary fact may encumber the movie. Costello is played by the very good Carla Gugino, but that she must embody an idea, virtue continually mis-seen as carnal vice, limits her from being a more interesting character. Again, this impediment is not a flaw linked to the writing or the actress, but an unavoidable outcome of Costello as almost a mythic figure. She is a snow white virgin, but also, intentionally or not, a variation on Tiresias, the ancient prophet. Tiresias was blind and Costello is near-blind without her glasses; Tiresias combined equally the male and female, while Costello has a female body any man might covet, but her haircut is boyish and she plays the heroic male role; Tiresias truthfully told Oedipus his future, yet Oedipus refused to believe him, just as Santoro does not want to hear the horrific truth that Costello offer.

Seeing and this refusal to see are dealt with in the next part.

SEMI-DIVINE INFORMATION

This is a movie where amoral figures are given extraordinary powers of observation, visual gifts that would be considered magical or god-like in a more metaphysical era. Dunne has a tracking device which allows him to follow a beacon wherever it travels.

Snake Eyes

Santoro can see the fight from any angle, with the camera giving a god’s eye view down revealing that the knockout has been faked.

Snake Eyes

Later, Santoro can use the multitude of cameras in the casino to find Costello. Here, we also have the great disconnect between these great technologies and anything like a moral compass: the only issue of whether people steal or there are prostitutes is that this is detrimental to the business of the casino. Of course there are prostitutes, they simply need to keep their solicitations discrete; as for theft, this is the casino’s business. If the casino isn’t winning against you, you must be cheating.

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

Though such tools are fractional in power in terms of any hand-held device now, they remain an epochal step beyond anything before. Santoro’s associates must discover which room this man is going to – they do so by going to their database of past footage, and find the name flashed on his driver’s license, which they are then able to look up.

Snake Eyes

The story is about a conspiracy surrounding a missile system to deal with threats from nations like Iran, and the assassination is pinned on a palestinian. The middle east is once again playing the part of “the other”, yet now we encounter the usual paradox: the orient is without, the orient is within. This hotel is designed entirely in a faux Arabian Nights theme, with the halls and suites made up like an imitation sheik’s palace. It also allows for a surreal moment, where this synthetic castle suddenly takes on a genuine magical quality: the halls appear to reach out infinitely, each one entirely like the other, the powers of observation which have served so well till now entirely useless.

Snake Eyes

This may be a good place to mention that the viewer’s powers of observation match or exceed that of any of the characters. They travel with Santoro, who, as a cop is able to move almost anywhere by simply showing his badge.

Snake Eyes

This has nothing to do with Santoro being a good man; Costello is more virtuous, yet can travel nowhere near the places he can, and is ultimately sealed off in a room by Santoro. Yet our powers exceed even this. When Costello moves into a room, we pass through its walls.

Snake Eyes

As already said, we are able to move into a bathroom with ease, and look down on a half-naked woman. We also hear of information that is never revealed to Santoro or Costello, the key role of Gilbert Powell in the assassination plot. By the last scene, Santoro, Costello, and the media still think Powell is uninvolved in the conspiracy, and he remains unindicted, at the head of the company.

Snake Eyes

POWELL
In the plan I bought, that prairie populist…who was criminally dismantling the entire armed forces, goes down! The disloyal employee, she goes down with him. The fanatical terrorist, he takes the rap. The AirGuard missile contract is approved, and l, I get enough money to finish the goddam Millennium! It was a good plan! No humiliation, no scandal, no prison!

REPORTER V.O.
Meanwhile, the AirGuard investigation continued in Washington, and Gilbert Powell announced more firings at Powell Aircraft as he cleans house in the wake of the assassination.

Where Santoro and Dunne move about lost in the maze of hotel passages, we impossibly drift, like a divine spirit, across room after room, until we reach the suite we are searching for.

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

This movie is about the insufficiency of simply seeing, that this ability contains no moral power in and of itself. The film is about Santoro making proper judgement of what he has seen, and the movie ends with the open question of whether we have been properly discerning in what we too have gazed on.

An illustrative sequence of this is when Santoro is told by Costello what she herself has seen in the moments up to the killing. A notable detail which reveals the small gap between everybody’s memories – the dialogue we overhear when the secretary and Costello start talking to each other in the opening scene is this:

COSTELLO
It’s in the pocket.

SECRETARY
Have you been writing to me?

COSTELLO
Listen to me, Mr Secretary. I am telling you, you are the one that’s gonna be sorry.

It is now slightly different:

COSTELLO
It’s in the pocket.

SECRETARY
Excuse me. Did you say something?

COSTELLO
It’s in the pocket.

SECRETARY
Pocket? So you’ve been writing to me.

COSTELLO
But I am telling you, you’re the one that’s gonna be sorry.

A more important point of the split screen is that we are shown two sets of images, on the right, what Costello personally has witnessed and now recalls, and images on the left – Dunne observing the arena through binoculars, giving orders by microphone, planting the papers on Rabat’s body – that she could not possibly have witnessed, that are entirely the creation of Santoro, imagining what actually took place. Though one set of images has a reasonable basis in the recall of an eyewitness, the left-hand set is entirely hypothetical, a reasonable hypothesis, but a hypothesis nonetheless, yet: both sets of images are presented as if they are equal, till we are given solely the images, Dunne planting the papers, which Santoro imagines.

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

Though this is valuable information, information he has been searching for, it is information he does not want. Again, it is not simply enough to have access to what others have seen, if we are unwilling to consider our own assumptions to be very wrong.

I think there is some resistance to how venal a character Rick Santoro is, and how close he is to Dunne in utter ruthlessness. This moment, Santoro right at the precipice, goes unmentioned in discussions of the movie, though I think it is crucial:

SANTORO
You decided to have this problem, not me! My world would’ve gone on turning just fine, but now either way I look, I have to do something I don’t want to do. Do you understand what I’m saying? I do not want to do this!

COSTELLO
Do what?

Snake Eyes

The question of what it is Santoro has to do next goes without answer, but I think it is a simple one: he has to kill this woman. We move suddenly away from the two in conversation at this point, and cut to a shot of the stairwell they’re in, and again, we’re in the fantastic dimensions of the endless corridors of the hotel as these stairs swirl away infinitely while ominous thunder rumbles outside.

Snake Eyes

That these stairs seem to move away in both directions endlessly is not empty cinematic bravura, but done for a specific point. Santoro can now choose whether to go to heaven or hell, based on what he’ll do next. The world is one of post-catholic iconography, where the powers of divine sight have been gifted to us, where the elysian heights are entirely synthetic, luxury hotel suites, but there are still deeds that can damn us to the flames. When Dunne kills his fellow soldiers, he does so only after descending a staircase to the bowels of the arena. Obviously, he passes through a red light.

Snake Eyes

It is this same place, descending these same stairs that he has Santoro beaten.

Snake Eyes

Of course, the other images that suggest catholic imagery in a post-catholic world is the taint of blood which touches those involved in the conspiracy. Costello is able to wash the blood from herself, Santoro changes his bloody shirt, but Gilbert Powell stays in the same blood-stained clothes.

Snake Eyes

Of course, the blood spat on the medals, which Dunne cannot clean off as easily as he thinks.

Snake Eyes

And the blood-stained bill reminds Santoro of his past sins, and warns him of his future ones.

Snake Eyes

Right after the fantastic shot of the stairwell, Santoro asks Costello certain defining details to fix her as an image, a woman with a family, someone alive and not simply statistic. It is this vision which keeps him from killing her. He says as much in the movie’s conclusion:

SANTORO
Don’t try to make a hero out of me. It won’t fit. If I hadn’t put a face to you, things probably would’ve gone a whole lot different.

Having been given the information, he first tries to persuade her that she has not seen this. He does this with no counter-information, only through the sheer force of his will. It is inconvenient for these events to have occurred, so they cannot have occurred. That Costello is a moral actor, that her actions are the right actions, that the effects of her actions are to have an overall beneficial effect, is irrelevant; if there are sufficient corrupt actors, who benefit from the corruption, than the moral actor must be discouraged, or killed. Santoro now nearly enters into the conspiracy, not with the portent of any sinister music, but simply because it is easier to be part of this conspiracy than outside of it. On this basis we may examine our own lives, and ask how many networks are we part of, which would never be given so ominous a name as a conspiracy, but which have an ultimate detrimental effect, yet which we are party to because it is easier to belong than be an outside skeptic?

Then we have another shocking moment, for Santoro does successfully intimidate her into changing her story. That the conspiracy succeeds or fails is not because she cannot be bent, it is only due to something in Santoro not allowing himself to do this.

SANTORO
You could be wrong. Isn’t it possible?

COSTELLO
Yes. Yes.

SANTORO
Isn’t it so?

COSTELLO
Yeah, now that I think about it, I think I could be wrong. Um, you remember I told you that my glasses, they had fallen off, and I couldn’t quite focus. I don’t think it was him.

SANTORO
Shit. Your glasses didn’t fall off till after the gunshots–

Santoro then locks her up, rather than simply let her go, for reasons that go unsaid. A sanguine viewer might believe it is simply that the detective still doesn’t know if he believes her, and whether she was party to the murder. A pessimist might think that Santoro still considers the possibility of killing this insignificant woman.

The detective returns to the arena, and finds a camera, a god’s eye view of the stage high in the ceiling, a recurrence of the theme of the divine vision. This camera is also a reprise of the “The false mirror” by René Magritte, an eye isolated from the body, but dense with a cloud-filled sky, an eye connected with the metaphysical substance of the soul. Santoro sees this vision, and realizes that his friend is chief party to the assassination.

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

After, both Dunne and Tyler descend from a great height, down the stairs to the control room. There may be a hell for ill-doers and murderers, but the aeries of real estate are filled with those whose hands may well be blood spattered. Elysium is a state of grace, found only in good, brave deeds.

Santoro is given a terrible beating, before being let go in order that he may be tracked to where he’s hidden Costello. As he wanders along the corridor, badly disoriented, he is followed by Dunne, who looks down on his tracking device, again, like a god gazing on a helpless bughill, a divine vision in the hands of a demon.

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

Santoro’s travel to the sealed room plays off of earlier scenes, important for this detecive’s position in the narrative, and how he serves, and does not serve, as a vehicle for what the audience wants. The next, brief, section is devoted to this.

WHAT MAKES YOU THINK YOU’RE BETTER THAN ME?

A key line, early on in the extended shot, after Santoro beats Cyrus (the great Luis Guzman), the dealer, and busts up his supply:

Snake Eyes

CYRUS
You got a bad attitude, you hear, my friend? What makes you think you’re better than me?

SANTORO
Friends, Cyrus. Everybody loves Rick Santoro.

There is nothing distinguishing this low level dealer and this corrupt cop, the cop himself admits. He humiliates, beats, then extorts this dealer, all things he is able to do because he has the right friends. Santoro then watches the fight, a celebration of a rigged game, the boxing ring flanked by the weapons of Gilbert Powell, another example of a rigged game. Both are exhibits of vicarious violence, allowing a man to take the role of the champion, or military commander: did not many take vicarious martial satisfaction in the conquests of Iraq and Afghanistan, until such conquests turned sour and difficult? Just as the audience of the fight wishes to participate vicariously as Tyler, the movie viewer might wish Santoro to be their proxy, defeating the villains at the end through a vicious physical fight. Yet just as Tyler’s throwing the fight defeats the possibility of one vicarious pleasure, I think the film-makers deliberately choose to avoid giving the viewing audience their own satisfaction through violent proxy. To provide such a satiation for blood-thirst would be to play the same manipulative game that Gilbert Powell plays, making money through the pleasure of remote death.

It would also further the lie that superior force is necessarily accorded to the most virtuous, that whoever can beat the other man must necessarily be the creature of greater decency. The brave choice of Santoro should not be secondary to providing a context for an action scene involving his vengeance, but rather the focus should remain on the choice itself.

Instead, Santoro is beaten without mercy. Where before his connections allowed him to interrogate Tyler fearlessly, now that network is entirely gone, over-ridden by Dunne and his greater power. Rather than giving the viewer the satisfaction of him fighting back, we experience something very different for a movie like this: we watch him suffer. And not simply watch, for we are given his point of view when he wakes up, becoming him in this moment of greatest weakness. Where before he gave out a beating to a man of no consequence, now he has become a vulnerable man himself, who, just like Cyrus, can be destroyed without after-effect. The role he saw at a distance, a man savagely beaten, he has taken on himself.

The very wounds Tyler and Santoro suffer have a similar pattern.

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

Santoro manages to make it up the stairs, and we see him move through the very area where he beat Cyrus hours before, each step now filled with pain.

Snake Eyes

The audience is forced to see themselves in this man, beaten, weak, and vulnerable, the very opposite of the kinetic fantasy that they expected at this point. Just as we might wish to see ourselves in an action hero, we do not wish at all to see ourselves in Santoro now, yet we are forced to imagine ourselves in his condition, hurt and frightened. This should be a counterpoint to the earlier scene where Dunne kills his fellow soldier (Chip Chuipka). This man bears an uncanny physical similarity to Dunne; he looks strikingly similar to Gary Sinise in Reindeer Games, yet Dunne sees this mirror of himself, this fellow soldier, and feels nothing, killing him. This soldier may have taken part in the conspiracy, yet this moment of him begging for his life connects with us, the anguish of a dying man pleading for mercy affecting us no matter what he has done before, yet it touches Dunne not at all.

Snake Eyes Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

A DIGRESSION: GILBERT POWELL, MAN OF THE FUTURE

Among the valuable pieces on Snake Eyes on-line is Brian Eggert’s writing for Deep Focus Review, which I enjoyed, though I differed with the following line: “When viewed as a political thriller, its lack of last-minute twist or plausibility operate against it, while the conspiracy itself is questionable.” The conspiracy is also dismissed in the equally well-written segment by John H. Semley of the A.V. Club’s Caged Wisdom devoted to the film: “The political murder-mystery plotting borrows heavily from De Palma’s own Blow Out“.

My mind does not run to conspiratorial thinking, but I find this movie from 1998 remarkably prescient in its head of the conspiracy, Gilbert Powell, a man whose business is entirely made up of gambling and defense contracts. This, it would seem to me, in the wake of two bloody wars and the mortgage crisis, an excellent description of the bulk of the economy of the Bush epoch, with the contractor employing any weaselly subterfuge possible to advance his own interests, his construction of a casino jerry-rigged around a deception, his pious invocations of the military dead for financial gain, this movie seems to be not a re-hashing or an implausibility at all, but a startling metaphor of the era we just lived through before the era took place.

I end with a speech by Powell, that to me, expertly captures the oily mix of lachrymose and belligerence, the cheap cover for the squalid interests of too many, that passionately, negligently, led so many good men and women to their deaths.

Snake Eyes

POWELL
At this time I’d like to extend my deepest sympathies…to the secretary’s family…and to the nation…and to the people that he so faithfully and proudly served. And, uh…I have something else to say. To those that would try to bully us or to terrorize us, to divert us from the causes of peace and justice, I want you to know that in spite of what’s happened here tonight, we are not deterred. Production of the AirGuard missile system will go ahead in accordance with Secretary Kirkland’s wishes.

ONE MORE DIGRESSION: MOMENTS WITH NICOLAS CAGE

When he goes to interview Tyler in his dressing room:

Snake Eyes

SANTORO
And you sign my kid’s autograph!

Refusing to co-operate:

Snake Eyes

DUNNE
Snake eyes. The house wins. Now, where is she?

SANTORO
Fuck. You.

The difficult art of looking relaxed:

Snake Eyes

A DIVINE INVASION / YOU ARE THE QUARRY

Santoro arrives at the sealed room, Dunne right behind him. The lightning flashes, and Santoro sees Dunne’s shadow, the man who has given in to killing, just as Santoro might have.

Snake Eyes

It is here that Santoro, weaponless, a gun pointed at him, is given something of a divine reprieve. Just as the light falls out of the sky at just the right angle in De Palma’s Femme Fatale, now Santoro is granted a god-given escape. Just as the camera eye provided a vision from the heavens confirming Costello’s story, now another vision gives him the possibility of survival. Santoro looks up and sees the television showing a police truck speeding towards their location, then moves quickly to the door, going into the sealed room which suddenly breaks apart like a stage set opened up, the police sliding to a stop inches from them, a longed for divine invasion into this world.

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

Before it was “snake’s eyes”, the house wins, Dunne can call on greater power than Santoro. Now, they are in a different rigged game; the audience requires a happy ending, and Dunne must lose.

Snake Eyes

DUNNE
No, wait! Wait a minute! Wait! I’m with D.O.D.!

COP
Put it down now!

DUNNE
Listen to me! Listen!

COP
Put the gun down!

DUNNE
This– This woman is a suspect!

COP
We’ll be forced to fire.

DUNNE
No, she’s a suspect, goddam it! I am Commander Kevin Dunne,

COP
I suggest you drop it now!

DUNNE
…and this woman is a threat to the security of the United States. Rick, tell ‘em! Please, for God’s sake, tell ‘em what we got here!

SANTORO
There’s no “we,” Kevin! You got snake eyes!

Dunne finds himself before the camera, then kills himself.

Snake Eyes

It should be asked at this point, what exactly is Dunne caught doing? He is simply holding a gun, in an agitated state, while chasing suspects. He has the appearance of guilt, this is enough, and Dunne is sufficiently savvy to know that this is enough. It is he who understands how such coverage works, who predicts exactly what will eventually happen to Santoro after the press makes him into a hero.

DUNNE
What is this, a heroic stand? You’re the wrong guy for it, Rick. You’ll be all alone in the spotlight, and guys like you can’t stand up to that light. You’ll burn up under it. The press starts looking for dirt on you, and they will, it’ll be a mud slide. Forget about your job, your sweet life in Margate. Start thinkin’ about jail! Your girlfriend will be gone, too, at the first sign of trouble, but not before she has a little chat with Angela! So say goodbye to your wife too! Twice a month with Michael won’t be so bad if you can get him to spend a night…in your shitty apartment! You’ll lose it all, my friend! Everything! And your whole connected life will fall the hell apart. Is that what you want? All you gotta do is be consistent, for Christ’s sake.

There is nothing just in this result, it is solely an outcome that this form demands, the end of the villain, though such methods could well condemn an innocent man. Dunne’s killing himself, while it satisfies the need for the villain’s destruction, is something else, which makes it so valuable in our time of exploitation media, indifferent to who the victim is: it is a snuff film, someone committing suicide on camera.

The movie now becomes a tabloid news format, a stark difference from what took place before. The narrative we’ve just left has been a movement from distance, Santoro and the women around him, Santoro and the violence of the fighters, towards empathy, Santoro and Costello, Santoro knowing now what it is to be powerless, what it is to suffer such a beating. Here, in these tabloid stories, there is always distance from the subject, either giving in to worship, Santoro as a hero, or desecration, Santoro as a corrupt cop. The reporter who covers the unfolding scandal is, of course, his old friend Lou, who bribed Santoro for the job.

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

LOU
Hey, if you’re gonna be on TV, who better asking you the questions, than your old pal Lou, huh? Plus, I can have two grand cash in an hour and a half.

SANTORO
You are a disgusting human being.

LOU
Hey, five grand in an hour.

SANTORO
Congratulations, Lou. You’re the guy!

LOU
Hey, Rick, I gotta tell you, I will always be there for you, my friend.

LOU V.O.
There have been allegations of bribery coming out of the mayor’s office. Could you comment on those? What about the cocaine–

SANTORO
Cocaine, my ass!

The same line that Santoro used, announcing the pre-conceived villain, is now used on him. He has been selected as the enemy, not a man of many acts, but now only a corrupt cop.

PHOTOGRAPHER V.O.
There he is.

REPORTER V.O.
Richard Santoro’s moment in the public eye produced an unexpected backlash this week as allegations of corruption swirled around him.

His complexities are irrelevant to this form, just as irrelevant as whatever made Dunne “look” guilty. The importance is the footage of Dunne killing himself, of Santoro running in flight, of Santoro in decline. The coverage given is no different than that given to the life of a tumultous actress. Shots of her beautiful, shots of her drunk, shots of her with a new boyfriend, her with a new girlfriend, her with no panties, her with a needle in her arm, her back from re-hab, her now beautiful again, her now no longer alive. What underlies the shots is irrelvant, the value lies in the shots themselves. We are now returned to the same asymmetry as we had in the arena, the possibility to see almost everything, and the amorality of that sight.

We return after this to Costello and Santoro. Santoro, as Dunne predicted, has lost everything and will spend some time in jail. In this last scene, there may or may not be a greater significance in a small gesture. As Santoro lists all that he has lost, it is crushing to us, and we wish for some relief for this man, just as we wanted these two to escape, and were granted this relief. Costello tells of her own achievements, the congressional hearings, and the possibility of reform. She then either does something that is in preparation for a kiss, or a signal that what follows is entirely given as a comfort to the audience. This movie, whose themes revolve around sight, now takes off her glasses. A major point of the film is that Costello is almost blind without them. Yet she removes them, gives Costello a deep kiss, then walks off, among the crowded boardwalk, keeping them off. Given her near lack of sight, how is she able to do this? Again, one may read this as part of a larger romantic gesture, or as a sign that what takes place after she removes the glasses is entirely false, allowing us a return to our own lives. Costello now has a curvaceous, form-fitting top, different from the loose men’s shirt of before. Throughout the movie, she resisted being viewed as sexual, now she initiates intimacies.

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes

I do not imply that she does not do so on her terms, or that there is no basis for it, only that it is a moment that the audience wants, and that the audience gets, a chosen sight, a milder variation of what Santoro wants and does not want to see, where we too may choose not to see the detail signaling that it’s false. That the final line, “At least I got to be on TV”, is said without regret or bitterness, might be seen as equally false, returning us to the comfortable lie that there is something equitable and just in what is seen, and what is not, and that this man exposed only for the purpose of desecration, is some rare and occasional exception.

* It is actually from a book by Grant Allen, with Wells excerpting his review of the book in his memoir. The criticism is somewhat apt for this character as well, and somewhat not. Julia Costello is less real than a character in a book which might be low or high mimetic, but this movie is very much of the heightened notes of the thriller genre. I include an excerpt of Wells’ excerpt:

“We have endeavoured to piece this character together, and we cannot conceive the living woman. She is, he assures us with a certain pathos, a ‘real woman.’ But one doubts it from the outset. ‘A living proof of the doctrine of heredity’ is her own idea, but that is scarcely the right effect of her. Mr. Grant Allen seems nearer the truth when he describes her as ‘a solid rock of ethical resolution.” Her solidity is witnessed to by allusions to her ‘opulent form’ and the ‘lissom grace of her rounded figure.’ Fancy a girl with an ‘opulent’ form! Her ‘face was, above all things, the face of a free woman,’ a ‘statuesque’ face, and upon this Mr. Grant Allen has[464] chiselled certain inappropriate ‘dimples,’ which mar but do not modify that statuesque quality.”

“Clearly this is not a human being. No more a human being than the women twelve hands tall of the fashion magazines. Had her author respected her less he might have drawn her better. Surely Mr. Grant Allen has lived long enough to know that real women do not have spotless souls and a physical beauty that is invariably overpowering. Real women are things of dietary and secretions, of subtle desires and mental intricacy; even the purest among them have at least beauty spots upon their souls.”

The entire autobiography can be found here

(Images and screenplay excerpts copyright Buena Vista and Touchstone Pictures)

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