Gangster Goes Arthouse: Revolver

Writer and director Guy Ritchie has gained considerable notoriety for his British cult films of ganster follies Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels and its sequel, Snatch. Like American films and television shows centering on New York mafia, Ritchie’s films, too, spawned numerous British gangster cast regulars. His films also offer a refreshing humor that is rarely, if ever, present in the American gangster genre. But most importantly, the gem of these movies is the writing, and some would follow this model of both humorous and tragic ironies, such as the slick drama, Layer Cake (2004). But writer/director Ritchie, teaming up with French director Luc Besson (he holds writing credits here), might surprise audiences expecting their latest work, Revolver, to be something similar to either Ritchie or Besson’s previous films. Instead, much of this film appears to be an experimental effort that might aptly be labeled Gangster Arthouse.

Granted, the movie begins as one loyal to the British gangster genre might already expect. Jason Statham, a leading regular in Ritchie’s movies, is Jake Green. Now with a full beard and head of scraggly long hair, Statham looks rugged, though dressed in crisply tailored suits, his appearance might be considered somewhat biblical at times. As is typical of Stratham’s leading character, or what might be better compared to Daniel Craig’s unnamed character in Layer Cake considering the similarly serious tone, he is reluctantly forced into a situation that is likely to end badly, narrating to audiences all expectations and consequences, whether direct or analogous, as someone well versed in the criminal activities with which he is involved. It is always a game of strategy.

Green is an impeccable card player and for him, gambling is really a hustle and one that’s made him quite wealthy over the years. When challenged to play Dorothy Macha (a well-tanned and droopy-faced Ray Liotta who walks through most of the movie in spandex briefs) who is a horrible poker player that people forfeit their games to out of fear of retaliation, cocky Jake Green not only beats Macha, but insults him relentlessly. As expected, Macha orders a hit on Green and while Green allies himself with two unlikely brothers–Avi (Andre Benjamin of Outkast) and Zach (Vinnie Pastore who is probably most recognizable known for his role in The Sopranos), they are not offering protection out of sheer generosity. Rather, Green is forced to turn over to them all of his money so the trio can become loansharks and most importantly, bring down Macha. And though Macha’s power is contingent on sustaining a feared presence, he has one of his own to worry about: the elusive Mr. Gold, rumors of whom make him sound as relentlessly vicious as Anton Chigur, the villain of No Country for Old Men (2007). “Mr. Gold doesn’t accept excuses and he doesn’t give second chances.”

The leading characters of modern British gangster films have always been dependent on strategy and considering all possible outcomes, whether of their allies or enemies. But, In order to become the strategic mastermind of all the interconnected foes in this film, it will require more than the usual criminal expertise that guided the troubled “good guys” of Lock Stock and Snatch, for example. Now the rules critical to Green’s survival, which means learning an entirely new arena and successfully conning his opponent, derives from one of the oldest games of strategy: chess. He proves to be an expert in the game, but the applying in the real world the rules he frequently uses to defeat even the most masterful opponents will require abandoning a rather large ego, the thing that got him in trouble in the first place. But soon, the game becomes perplexing for Green and things begin to turn into a personal nightmare. Unfortunately, his explanations of the expert deconstruction he taught himself while serving a lengthy sentence of solitary confinement, tend to become lengthy and meld into exhaustive and confusing jargon when presented as fleeting words rather than hard text. A word to the wise: this is not a movie to start from anywhere but the beginning.

While the story follows some of the usual plot arrangements including plenty of slick, mob-styled revenge, both visuals and the narrative encompass avant garde (or, characteristically arthouse) elements. The transition of subtitles present in some of the film might not be considered much of a novelty after what had been done in the remake of Man on Fire. During major action sequences in the middle of the film, live action mixes with a sudden transition to comic book styled animation similar to the Aeon Flux cartoons. When Stratham’s character undergoes self-actualization, the intensity is interrupted with one sentence quotes from the pages of “The Road to Suicide,” something which might fool audiences to expect the credits to roll and accept a frustratingly uncertain conclusion. Much of the cinematography, too, appears rather uncharacteristic for this context. Several scenes are drenched in solid colors of red or blue. And dialog between characters in a car or talking over a game of chess are shot from very low angles. Moreover, as the credits roll (unusually including credit for prop apprentices and metal workers, among others), one might expect that Ritchie or Besson intended the film as an educational effort; an insight into paranoia and schizophrenia as various academics discuss the function of the ego.

But despite some of the experimentation, this, combined with other elements, seems to have angered critics searching for some value in what looks to really be a convoluted and obvious attempt at a psychological thriller, something film critic Roger Ebert might have expressed best in the introduction to his Chicago-Sun Times review:

Guy Ritchie’s “Revolver” is a frothing mad film that thrashes against its very sprocket holes in an attempt to bash its brains out against the projector. It seems designed to punish the audience for buying tickets. It is a “thriller” without thrills, constructed in a meaningless jumble of flashbacks and flash-forwards and subtitles and mottos and messages and scenes that are deconstructed, reconstructed and self-destructed. I wanted to signal the projectionist to put a gun to it.”

Another review defended the movie (sorry, lost the link… but will post if found) comparing the genius of the film to having read a book for the first time that would be considered brilliant, but who’s understanding is lost on the first read. Which, in turns sounds like the statement that if you make a movie people don’t understand, they are willing to accept that lack of understanding as a mark of genius. If what is being said can truly be considered something intelligent, if not remarkable, then why must it be done to the point of being exceedingly perplexing where the meaning is lost even on second and third reflection?

Bang, bang.


5 Responses

  1. Do you know who wrote this book “The Road to Suicide,” ? or where to purchase it? Thanks.

  2. I will watch this movie a couple of more times and to my satisfaction “figure it out”. I have practiced Nichiren Buddhism for 35 years and I related with Mr. Green’s “psychological” struggle and his relationship with his “mentors”, Avi and Zach. The common misconception that Buddhism is about extinguishing desire must be discarded to understand what I am going to say next. A true understanding of Buddhism entails suing earthly desires to reveal enlightenment or changing poison into medicine. To be alive is to have desire and enlightenment is clearly a potential in all of us are challeged to reveal as we live out our mundane lives in the midst of our struggle to improve oursleves and society (as expounded in the Lotus Sutra, considered by most scholars to be Sakyamuni’s ultimate essential teaching as opposed to his provisional or preparatory teachings). Though, if approached properly, one can “burn” the firewood of desire and reveal enlightenment, ultimate one must deeply perceive that one’s egotistical expectations of gain or loss are NOT what Buddhist practice is ultimately about. Indeed, often prosperity can present more or an impediment than loss. (E.G. “rich man’s chances of entering heaven tougher than getting a camel through the eye of a needle, etc.) Also, loss, if approached correctly is often the most powerful event which precedes deep awareness of our essential identity, our own eternal buddhahood that transcends benefit or loss. I think that this is the kind of thing that Mr. Green and his mentors were dealing with. Macha and Mr. Gold are just metaphors for the world of “benefit or loss”, i.e. greed, animality, etc. where the weak cower before the powerful and then in turn lord over those they perceive weaker than themselves. In the end, Mr. Green’s “enlightenment” corresponded with the collapse of Mr. Macha’s total immersion in that lower state of life. In Buddhist mythology the last scene could be a scene between Sakyamuni and his arch rival, Devadatta. Like a quote from the movie says, “Ones ultimate enemy is always eternal.” (or somehting close to that). So Mr. Green overcame himself with teh help of his supposed enemy, Mr. Macha, but in reality, Mr. Macha was not the enemy and indeed Mr. Macha ultimately in the end benefited from his “negative” relationship with the Mr. Green (the Buddha). So that’s my call on the meaning of the movie. Bottom line, Mr. Green throws off his transient identity and reveals his true identity. That is what achieving enlightenment is all about. I have to watch the movie a couple more times to really nail this, but that was my impression on first viewing.

  3. There is definately some enlightenment involved, but I think its more plainly psychological than buddhist. Mr. Gold doesn’t exist, it’s like your ego and percieved identity. Once Macha’s internal voice started saying “Gold’s going to get me” and “they don’t fear me” that was it. Thats how Mr. Gold gets everyone. Thats why no one ever see’s Mr Gold, you speak to someone that represents Mr Gold. You can never be face to face with your ego, its always one step ahead of you. It’s innate of the ego. Thats what the psychologists and such were talking about during the credits. The ego always tricks us, it creates our perceived enemies, it created the devil, its always tricking us. One of them mentioned that we can’t imagine something that perceives and deciphers the truth better than our own mind, we simply can’t accept it. Thats how the ego is always misleading us by our own ignorance and such. Mr. Green’s two cell mate pals brought him with them as they said. He just had to understand it all as they did. The film is that journey.

  4. I think that Mr. Gold stands for fear and power. The fact that no one “sees” him increases that. Jake, however, experienced a psychiatric break and this piece is another example of the complicated system of which is our minds. The human psyche is so expansive and unknown that it is able to trick itself. Self awareness can even be a trick in itself, it’s all a catch twenty- two.

  5. Hats off to a movie worth watching(finally!).

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