Some filmmakers are important not so much for the intrinsic richness of their art as for their significance in a moviegoer's life. Brian De Palma is one such film-maker. Several generations of buffs have received a thrilling, formative sense of what cinema can be from the bracing experience of such De Palma specials as Sisters (1973), Blow Out (1981) and Carlito's Way (1993).
Sure, there is a stunted, nerdish, mechanical side to De Palma's films. Yes, the characters are often ciphers, the plots can be outlandish contrivances, and his 'messages' may seem casual or trite. Certainly there are many richer, deeper artists who make more lasting and satisfying movies. But I cannot today imagine the cinema – or life as a cinephile – without the dazzling, virtuosic, mind-boggling games played by De Palma.
Snake Eyes is not among De Palma's best. But maybe, right now, a budding young filmmaker is soaking up this elaborate conceit of a movie and having his or her eyes opened by all its amazing tricks with time, space, narrative and perspective. For the rest of De Palma's fans, it is more like business as usual – a solid, steady reminder of what makes his work so important and exciting.
The basic premise of Snake Eyes was sketched out by De Palma himself. Ringside at a boxing match, before a vast crowd, a politician is assassinated – and only Rick (Nicolas Cage) has spotted enough clues to intuit the possibility of a dirty, labyrinthine conspiracy. His pursuit of the truth – taking him through every nook and cranny of a locked-down casino-hotel complex – leads him into a merry-go-round of flashbacks told by (among others) the mysterious Julia (Carla Gugino) and his best friend Kevin (Gary Sinise).
De Palma has always been drawn to highly formalist plots and structures. This one is a beauty: the assassination is first shown in an unbroken, stunningly intricate 'long take', and then, progressively, each flashback reveals other details, characters and intrigues hidden within this seemingly transparent 'reality'. De Palma further multiplies the literal 'points of view' on this event by throwing in footage derived from numerous TV and security cameras – and even, at a high point, deploys his beloved, '60s-style split-screen effect.
Unlike in the masterly Carlito's Way, De Palma is unable here to balance his formalist tricks and grand set-pieces against a conventional, character-based drama. Rick is the ultimate, unlovable anti-hero – a handy conduit for every brittle, cynical attitude that De Palma has ever entertained. However, Cage's performance is immensely irritating – and Rick's pangs of moral conscience are even more risible. Worse still, the central, 'brotherly' relationship between Rick and Kevin is perfunctorily and weakly handled.
It is as if De Palma handed his talented co-writer David Koepp (Mission: Impossible, 1996) a plot outline and commanded: 'just fill in the emotional stuff'. Rarely has the discrepancy between De Palma's cardboard characters and the brilliant choreography of his style been more glaringly apparent. It's still a buzz for aficionados, but as Kevin says tauntingly to Rick: "The house wins".
© Adrian Martin October 1998