The key to appreciating Snake Eyes is to be in on the joke — that is, the ongoing in-joke that is Brian De Palma’s career. De Palma plays with the audience, he plays with the critics (and sure enough, the critics have panned Snake Eyes), and God knows he plays with the camera. De Palma devotes full widescreen close-ups to things that mean nothing, and he gives us teasing, blurry glimpses of crucial events. It’s all play, all movie. And De Palma’s exerting such ingenuity and energy over a half-baked thriller plot is part of the joke.
De Palma is in command of his material here (he concocted the story with scripter David Koepp) in a way he wasn’t in his last film, Mission: Impossible, an empty blockbuster dependent more on impersonal special-effects thrills than on the diabolical perceptual fake-outs that are De Palma’s specialty. In Snake Eyes, De Palma hauls out some of his favorite thematic toys to play with: technology, voyeurism, conspiracy/assassination, seduction. The whole movie is on a slant, either shot on a diagonal axis or diagonally bisected, so we get triangles within the rectangular frame — and within the triangles are the squares of countless monitors and TV sets. De Palma is back working with the geometry of paranoia.
The story itself is a multiple-viewpoint study of one event that De Palma practically blows off in the first half hour — he’s more interested in the twenty-minute tracking shot that opens the movie. The tracking shot serves two purposes: it puts De Palma ahead of every other director who’s done it (you can almost hear him echoing the movie’s hero: “I am the king!”), and it sketches in the main characters. The shot follows corrupt Atlantic City detective Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) as he strolls through a packed stadium on the night of a big boxing match. Rick talks to many people, many of whom turn out to have nothing to do with the action. It’s the people he barely notices or doesn’t talk to much who turn out to be important — like the mysterious woman in white (Carla Gugino) sitting next to him, or his friend Major Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), who’s in charge of security at the stadium.
The Secretary of Defense is at the fight, and he’s shot in the throat despite Major Dunne’s best efforts to protect him. Why? Who’s behind it? I have a feeling De Palma doesn’t care, and he doesn’t care if you care. (If you do care about such mundane plot-centered stuff, he’s saying, then you’re a sucker.) In Snake Eyes, as in vintage De Palma, the artifice of moviemaking itself becomes a joke — only more so here, because it’s so visually oriented and visually loaded. De Palma keeps adding lies within lies, like a Chinese box of ambiguous sights and sounds. Characters remember things differently or don’t even see things very well; one way or another, everyone is blinded or laboring under their incomplete piece of the puzzle. By the time De Palma breaks out his trademark split-screen, it’s a great comic flourish: only by seeing double can we see the truth.
De Palma also has a star who can match his flourishes. Allowed to run loose in this teeming playpen of a movie, Cage struts and hoots his way through a flamboyant peacock’s performance that helps to make up for City of Angels. Towards the end, Cage’s Rick Santoro takes a turn into tormented sincerity, one of De Palma’s few false moves here. Rick’s sense of being betrayed doesn’t touch us as it’s meant to. And his final scene isn’t necessary. The scene that plays through the end credits, though, is one of the wittiest and slowest-building jokes De Palma has ever played. In Snake Eyes, De Palma is so confident of his own deceptive mastery that he can make you sit there looking for meaning, laugh at yourself when you realize there is none … and, while you’re laughing, you almost miss a clue that does mean something. Or might mean something. De Palma is also confident enough in his comic instinct to laugh at those who sit there puzzling over his film. It’s a movie. It’s a joke. Don’t you get it?