A full-throated assemblage of directorly misconduct, Snake Eyes is a devious, delightful marriage of form and content that discovers visual subterfuge around every corner. Dancing in similar company with more overtly sense-refracting films from the same era – your Being John Malkovichs and every other 18-year-old film connoisseur’s favorite new discoveries, almost all of them released the year after Snake Eyes – but De Palma’s film is the lone perceptual study that also manifests its analysis primarily through camera movement, from long takes to De Palma’s trademark bifurcated screens. What a thought: a film about seeing things anew that actually demands we, you know, see.
In those other films, though, the “perceive life anew” narrative mechanics are only ever that – narrative mechanics – with the films curiously avoiding their god’s gift to questions of perception: the camera lenses that reflect mental lenses. In contrast, the wonderfully tactile Snake Eyes embodies its theme of differing perspectives with Rashomon-like control of the frame: the perception of the camera, the shots and the camera swerves and the edits, are the film’s theme, De Palma’s formal lenses for analyzing the incompleteness of any one lens to glimpse the whole truth around it. More than any film from the years around it, Snake Eyes feels like a eulogy to and a recrimination of the assumption that a camera can tell all without constantly reinvestigating and altering itself. Watching Snake Eyes brings new meaning to Armond White’s infamous comment that anyone who dislikes De Palma’s next film Mission to Mars “does not understand movies, let alone like them”.
With a pointedly, deceptively self-refracting story that negates any of the self-important narrative histrionics we associate with these altered-perception films, Snake Eyes is set exclusively in an Atlantic City casino where a boxing match gone awry undergirds Rick Santoro’s (Nicolas Cage) new awakening to deceit at the hands of former comrades. Santoro, a casino detective with a gambling addiction, is initially reticent to accept revelation, but De Palma’s wonderfully investigative, invasive camera constantly reshuffles perspectives around him, shoving them into his face until Santoro, and we, don’t really have a choice but to look at them anew.
Most other films about perspective are films only as circumstance rather than argument, because films make more money than books. In contrast, Snake Eyes, in typical De Palma fashion, enshrines the camera with the weight of proving the medium’s mettle as art and vision of life, and the shocking mistreatment of the film at the hands of critics and audiences 20 years ago only proves that they judge, not unlike Santoro initially, without really looking. They welcome new perception at the macro-level, in turning a film into a laundry list of events about perception, but the idea of actually subsuming oneself into the film – into the rhythm of the shots and the information the visuals convey – is comparatively abnormal to them. Unlike many films which are about new perceptions of reality, Snake Eyes is a new perception of reality. Or multivariate perceptions at that, with the constantly shifting camera always renouncing an essential truth.
By 1998, Nicolas Cage was fresh off of his first big action tentpoles, working overtime in John Woo’s harried, loopy sturdy-in-identity Face/Off, affording a simulacrum of humanity to Michael Bay’s The Rock, and almost singlehandedly turning Con Air into a work of bemused whimsy, so we know we’re in feral, untested waters here with Cage ready to get back to artistic cinema. The actor’s brazen defiance of good taste in the post-Klaus Kinski way that would a decade later drive Werner Herzog to him in a galvanic meeting of minds is frightfully effective, clawing head-first into De Palma’s exuberant camera tracks and his throat-grabbing shot selections, most of which require a Charon-like guiding light to ferry us down De Palma’s hellish visual River Styx. Cage, all flaring eye brows and ostentatious, libidinous line deliveries, is just about the platonic ideal for this role circa 1998, indulging in the character’s impulsive, semi-psychotic personality rather than running amok all over the film in ways the script or style don’t provide for (as he has been wont to do in his later, one-man-carnival-act days). Snake Eyes, at least, is a visual carnival, so the florid style is appropriate, and Cage’s unhinged line deliveries and full-bodied performance also suggests his discombobulation of his mind at the new world he is finally experiencing.
Snake Eyes isn’t a masterpiece of cinema, but it is a near-masterclass in form and content in harmony, a slinky film that refuses to rely on trivializing high-concept tricks about identity and self. Snake Eyes, in comparison, is a constantly fluxional, constantly frictional film where the camera is conscripted as the theme, where the loquaciousness of the imagery is a both a mirror – asking us to look at ourselves – and a prism – asking us to see things anew. For a film about the unfettering of reality beget by opening oneself up to reality, the adaptability of the camera frame is the perfect tool, a constantly searching question mark never ready to forgive and say enough is enough. New realities aren’t exclaimed but thrust forward as something we must deal with, not something to be proud of for realizing but a necessity for truly living at all.