“Believe Everything Except Your Eyes.”
This arguably meaningless phrase was one of five similarly-themed taglines concocted to promote Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes in 1998. The others were: “Seeing Is Deceiving,” the more verbose “He's got 14,000 eyewitnesses and no one saw a thing,” “Now you see it. Now you don’t,” and, simply, “Watch Closely.”
These are the kind of quasi-nonsensical lines of marketing that have been meant to hook viewers into thousands of interchangeable suspense thrillers over the years, but if you know anything about De Palma’s work as a director you know they point to one of his core themes, which is the mutability and the danger of one’s experience as an eyewitness. And despite a lackluster critical reputation, Snake Eyes is one of the very best explorations of that theme in De Palma’s career.
The protagonist of Snake Eyes is Rick Santoro, played by Nicolas Cage as the kind of flashy, comfortably corrupt Atlantic City cop who makes it a point to attract as much attention to his own excesses as possible, perhaps as a way to avoid any serious suspicion or scrutiny. He becomes witness to an assassination of the United States Secretary of Defense at a boxing match at the Atlantic City Arena, and slowly uncovers the shocking truth that the killing was not the work of a lone terrorist fanatic but was in fact an elaborate crime orchestrated by the millitary industrial complex itself to secure funding for an experimental and unsafe weapons system. Basic, post-JFK conspiracy stuff, in other words, but as in many of his other films De Palma orchestrates it with such panache that it becomes impossible to, well, look away.
The first example of that panache is also the most famous. It’s an opening 20-minute sequence designed to appear as one extended, unbroken shot, following Rick throughout the arena attempting to place a bet on the fight. In typical De Palma fashion this insane piece of technical bravura craftsmanship also serves a practical storytelling purpose, which is to acclimate the audience to the geography of the arena in which virtually the entire film takes place. We don’t know it yet, but that geography will be crucial to the clues of the film’s central mystery, in much the same way that locations like the “grassy knoll” in downtown Dallas take on a special, mythic significance due to the infamous crime that was committed there. This sequence is a great showcase for De Palma as well as the film’s cinematographer Stephen H. Burum and editor Bill Bankow, but it’s also a brilliant showcase for Nic Cage, whose schmoozing, wheeling, and dealing are the engine that keeps the shot moving just as much as the camera is.
Ringside, Cage and the film finally settle down for the fight to begin. De Palma places all the key players in proximity to one another: Cage, the fight, our unfortunate assassination victim-to-be, Gary Sinise as Commander Kevin Dunne, (Rick’s old buddy and the man in charge of security for the Secretary), and Carla Gugino’s Julia Costello, whose role in the story is not at that point clear. The bell rings, the fight begins, and in another fascinating touch that will pay narrative dividends later on, we see none of the in-ring action, instead staying focused on Rick and his reaction to the match, which ends abruptly when a shot rings out and the Secretary of Defense is dead.
The mystery that unfolds after those shots will have a familiar ring to anyone familiar with the last few decades of American history. Just as De Palma delighted in incorporating the audience’s memories of real police controversies into his Hitchcockian thriller plot in Sisters or the Chappaquiddick incident and the JFK/RFK killings into Blow Out, the plot of Snake Eyes seems to have an uncomfortable resonance with the real world. And in an age of Pentagon-backed superhero movies and post-9/11 militarism, it has a radical, anti-authoritarian edge that feels almost unbelievably refreshing today. The casting of Gary Sinise as Dunne, who (and you should probably check out now if you haven’t seen the movie and you’re concerned about spoilers) turns out to be the head man in charge of the conspiracy, is a beautifully subversive touch that plays on Sinise’s established reputation as a diehard supporter of “the troops.” Here, Sinise’s love of God, Country, and Uniform has mutated into a ruthless willingness to sacrifice anyone and anything for the greater good -- in this case, a faulty weapons system that has to be funded at all costs, no matter how many soldiers and civilians die in the process.
A radical antiwar theme is another familiar one in De Palma’s body of work. This, after all, is the man who made Casualties of War and would go on to make Redacted. But it’s still startling, especially in hindsight, to see an image as blistering as Rick, after being beaten to a pulp by Dunne’s goons, spitting blood all over the military medals on his uniform. It’s the sort of thing you would never see in any mainstream entertainment nowadays, but De Palma managed to get into one of his last major studio works where it’s become only more powerful in the intervening decades.
Cage is the star of Snake Eyes but it’s Sinise that makes the biggest impression. His off-screen reputation as a diehard honorary soldier adds a certain edge to the role, and there’s no denying that his penchant for on-screen killers and psychos is put to excellent use here. His scenes stalking the corridors of the hotel attached to the arena, seeking another “loose end” to be tied off, are master studies in menacing, sharklike focus in screen villains. And his speeches in defense of his criminal actions have just enough force and devotion behind them to make them scarily compelling: he’s like Colonel Nathan Jessup from A Few Good Men crossed with Michael Myers.
Sharing the screen with performers like Cage and Sinise is no easy task, but Gugino rises to it with aplomb, even saddled with one of De Palma’s trademark blonde wigs. It’s eventually revealed that she’s at the fight in her capacity as the Pentagon whistleblower that set the whole plot into motion, and the scenes of her attempting to escape the arena after the murder are among the most entertaining in the film, particularly when she uses her feminine wiles to enlist the help of a clueless, overweight guest at the hotel/casino. Ringers like Luis Guzman, John Heard, Stan Shaw, and Kevin Dunn fill out the primary supporting roles, all of them giving lie to the old slander that De Palma’s films don’t have real human characters instead of furniture for his plots.
In Snake Eyes as it exists within De Palma’s run of thrillers you can see a clear procession of the way technology has altered the concept of being an “eyewitness” to an almost unrecognizable degree. In Sisters you had a simple Rear Window scenario where the only thing separating Jennifer Salt from murder is a street corner, while John Travolta in Blow Out becomes a witness to an assassination only after sound recordings and photographs make the event clear. By the time we get to Snake Eyes, the story’s central crime has been recorded by seemingly infinite surveillance cameras scattered throughout the arena, but none of these recorded images are sufficient in revealing the true reality of what occurred. For that, you still need a detective hero to put the pieces together, and Cage’s Rick Santoro has to serve that role in the absence of anybody else who can fit the part better. In the end, his efforts to uncover the plot and bring the bad guys to justice bring not just a new kind of fame but exactly the kind of scrutiny he’d previously endeavored to avoid, and he ends up sentenced to a prison stint because of his various shady deals that came to light as a result of his heroism. In that respect he is similar to other De Palma heroes who tried to do the right thing but came away traumatized and perhaps irrevocably damaged, although the damage incurred by Rick is less psychological and more legal and financial in nature.
One aspect of Snake Eyes that continues to take a toll on its critical reputation is its ending. The film was famously set to end on an explosive climax involving the hurricane said to be making its way to the arena throughout the movie, established in the very opening shot. The budget to complete these expansive special effects shots ended up falling through, and in a scenario that, again, is familiar to De Palma fans, he had to come up with something new on the fly. The ending as it exists now features a somewhat abrupt intervention of law enforcement, but as it was originally conceived the film would have ended on justice of a more divine kind sweeping over the various evildoers and scoundrels that populate it. Whether Snake Eyes would be more appreciated by critics and the public had De Palma been able to complete it as it was originally conceived can’t be known, but even in its compromised form it feels more singular in content and artistic vision than the vast majority of mainstream thrillers then and now.
That’s probably why Snake Eyes has continued to build an audience in the 22 years and counting since it was released to a mostly indifferent public. Its depiction of the shadowy American military industrial complex on a collision course with gaudy Atlantic City glitz has uncomfortable echoes of the Donald Trump presidency that lay in its future, which is probably something that could be its own separate essay. And as mainstream films grow more homogenized and lacking any real visual storytelling, artistry like De Palma’s will continue to age into even more exciting classics -- this one time, it probably is OK to believe your eyes after all.