There are those Brian De Palma films whose treasures don’t need to be defended, either because their enormous commercial success has put them on a pedestal above critical thought (Mission: Impossible) or because journalists have graciously and almost unanimously decided to grant them the exceptional designation of being “good De Palma” (Blow Out). Snake Eyes is another story altogether, one of the director’s supposed style-over-substance dips into the deep end that critics carry out every so often to ceremonially flog for all to see. The only thing that separates it from The Fury and Raising Cain is that even the die-hard De Palma fans seem all too eager to abandon ship. Its disfavor is wound up in a logic so engrained in pop culture that the tongue-lashings begin to lose any character—two different reviews decide, “Snake Eyes opens on a roll, but ultimately craps out” in almost the exact same terms—ultimately revealing more about the individuals who carry them out than the movie itself.
Fittingly, then, Snake Eyes is about multiple perceptions of one major event, their relationship to each other and to the audience. “There are two sides to the truth: Yours and mine,” goes the familiar adage. In Snake Eyes there are many more sides, all of their pseudo-truths equally slippery: Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage), an overzealous cop with a gambling problem; navy commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), an old friend of Santoro; Lincoln Tyler (Stan Shaw), an undefeated boxer losing a grip on his career; Julia Costello (Carla Gugino), the enigmatic woman in white who becomes the center of everything; and of course, the viewer, who must engage with De Palma’s beguiling camerawork in order to glean any kind of deeper meaning from the chaos. They’re all witnesses to the assassination of Defense Secretary Charles Kirkland (Joel Fabiani) during a boxing match at Atlantic City’s Millennium Hotel, but their stories don’t jibe.
De Palma films the lead-up to the gunshot from the jittery perspective of Santoro, as he saunters through the hotel, a nearly unbroken 13-minute tracking-shot introduction to the corridors and faces that will become key puzzle pieces later. (Ever a student of Hitchcock, De Palma disguises cuts as the camera passes objects and people, a la Rope.) When the bullet hits, Santoro’s big “fight night” rapture shatters into a series of quick cuts surveying the arena, a wake-up call to Santoro as well as the audience that they need to start paying attention. De Palma suggests that each shot alone is another lie, but put together they form a sort of reality. Santoro reviews game footage from four different angles and comes to the conclusion that the opponent’s knockout against Tyler was a phantom punch. At its best, Snake Eyes uses these flashbacks to conjure up both the lucidity and frustration of historical reveries. Characters compare their vantage points, devastated by increasingly sinister revelations, furiously trying to rewrite the past to cast themselves in the best light. As Dunne suggests at one point, each successive minute is a new “draft of history.”
In this digital generation, some of the more lauded works by younger filmmakers have questioned our personal existence in a larger, uncertain universe: The Matrix, Fight Club, Donnie Darko, Waking Life, etc. As a rumination on the meaning of reality, Snake Eyes has them all beat, but De Palma’s setup is more stripped down—less gimmicky—and his visceral adherence to shots above words disconcerts critics uncomfortable with the full power of the moving image. (They should stick to books.) David Koepp’s script may starve for subtlety, but it provides a perfectly clever context to De Palma’s fetishistic obsession with seeing—a juxtaposition of identity and integrity against a casino hotel’s false and fraudulent interior.
Neither Santoro nor the Atlantic City he loves goes looking for truth; the truth comes to them, forcing a shift in their collective reality. A storm’s redemptive waters beat against the Millennium while Santoro and Julia, no longer mysterious, sit on its stairwell snapping together their accounts of the night via split-screen to form a complete picture—a new draft of history. On one side of the screen, the villain is outed and on the other Nicolas Cage’s eyes respond by widening in devastation—a moment of breathless visual harmony that becomes the film’s true climax for the ages. The camera isn’t the only star, as Dennis Schwartz gripes in his write-up of Snake Eyes, but it is the star among all the stars. And De Palma wouldn’t have it any other way.