Lucky Number Slevinrecommended viewing

Come for the stylish direction—leave for the offensive Aryan ethos
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2006
Director: 
Paul McGuigan
Starring: 
Josh Hartnett, Bruce Willis, Lucy Liu, Morgan Freeman, Sir Ben Kingsley
The Setup: 
Complicated hip ironic wrong-man-involved-with-gangsters story.
Discussion: 

I am ready to start the Paul McGuigan fan club. He’s well on his way to becoming my favorite living director who is not Brian De Palma. Because like De Palma, he has a very showy but inclusive side, throwing in flamboyant directorial touches that reward the viewer for paying attention, but he also knows when to scale back and just let a story unfold or let a character deliver information. This is only the second movie I’ve seen by him, after the dreamy Wicker Park [which I had a recent bout of obsession with], but I’m going to go back and watch his few earlier movies and keep an eye out for anything he does in the future.

We begin with a really nice opening credits sequence intercut with a bunch of people getting killed. One of them features a death-by-baseball sequence from behind a man’s eyeglasses. Then we’re in some sort of generic terminal, where this dude turns to see Bruce Willis in a wheelchair. Bruce, as Mr. Goodkat, tells him this story about a schlub who got a tip on a horse that was meant for these gangsters. He bet on the horse, the horse lost, and the gangsters wanted to know who else was getting their tips. And they killed the guy, his wife, and his kid. Then Willis ices the schlub, because he says he needs a dead body.

We now join Josh Hartnett as Slevin, in his friend Nick’s apartment. He meets the next door neighbor, Lucy Liu as Lindsay, who is very charming and invasive and a little kooky. He tells her about how he just arrived in New York and was immediately mugged, his nose broken. He’s on a getaway because he found his girlfriend in bed with another man. The flashbacks to the mugging and the girlfriend scene and shot in black and white and in a jerky, frame-by-frame motion, and the girlfriend’s apartment is all these crazy B&W stripe patterns, all of which is intentional, although you would never know it unless you really, REALLY gave this movie a good think afterwards. We’ll talk about this within the spoiler zone.

So then these black thugs show up and take Slevin to see The Boss, Morgan Freeman, who thinks that Slevin is Nick, who owes the Boss around $90,000. I thought it was a little odd that Slevin would just ACCEPT that he must now assume Nick’s debt, but you have to just play along. His repayment is to kill Yitzchok, the son of the Rabbi.

The Rabbi is Ben Kingsley, a rival gangster who lives in the identical tower right across the street. They have had a feud which keeps both of them confined to their penthouses. Next time I’m down around where Eighth Avenue meets Greenwich, I’m going to have to look if both of these buildings are really there [they are]. I know one of them is. Oh and by the way, Yitzchok, son of the Rabbi, is gay, and known throughout at “the fairy.” Yep.

So in here you’re like; “Well Slevin has sure got a mouth on him, and really doesn’t seem all that concerned about all of this,” but then it’s explained that he has ataraxia [or some shit] that is characterized by a freedom from worry. It makes his character kind of casually funny in the face of all this threat of death, and I’m sure is what people are talking about when they say that this film is ‘Taranino-esque.’ Lucy Liu, as the charming Lindsay, also just happens to be a total junior Nancy Drew, assuming that there’s an intriguing mystery behind everything. She is completely sweet and charming here, and it’s a pleasure to see her do something other than kick ass, be a bitch, or be an ass-kicking bitch—despite how I love her as an ass-kicking bitch.

SPOILERS > > >
From now on there are twists and turns that you might not want to know about, although I’ll warn you when the twists that you REALLY don’t want to know about come up. So we see that Goodkat [Willis] is lurking in the background of The Boss’… and also lurking in the background of The Rabbi’s. So you begin to think that he has totally set the innocent Slevin up and is using him to kill Yitzchok, then Goodkat will kill Slevin.

So Slevin’s plan to kill Yitzchok is to come on to him as a gay person, get a date, and kill him on the date. Goodkat will then kill Slevin, making it look like a [and I quote:] “we’re-both-gay, the-world-doesn’t-understand-us double suicide.” So one night at a restaurant Slevin follows Yitzchok into the mensroom and propositions him [not shown], and gets a date. On the way out, Stanley Tucci as a police investigator comes in and wants to talk to Slevin, who initially says “listen buddy, I’m not gay.” Now I know we’re supposed to be looking at this movie in this we’re-so-ironic, we’re-making-fun-of-everyone context, but this scene crosses the line into genuinely offensive. The entire idea that “gay life is so sad” [to use my mother’s phrase] that a “we’re-both-gay, the-world-doesn’t-understand-us double suicide” seems like a plausible scenario is just a reflection of the screenwriter’s outdated understanding of what being gay is. Worse, the whole concept that Yitzchok jumps at a date with this guy [that he has never met] who wanders into a mensroom after him carries the old musty implication that gays will leap at the chance to go out with any man, as well as the straight guy’s belief that the men’s restroom is the meeting place of choice for gays. The line to Tucci expresses the straight guy’s terror that some dude might come on to him in the public restroom. Now, how many modern out gay people are really lurking in restrooms? In 2007? In New York City? This kind of thing was much more prevalent 30 years ago, when gays were not as accepted and were FORCED to use codes and meet people in furtive situations, because that it is among the few places they could. So the whole suggestion that gays WANT to meet in restrooms, and that any gay man would LEAP at a chance to date yummy Josh Hartnett, tells us more about the screenwriter’s oldie-moldy ideas about what gay people are and his own fears about like, what if you were in a restroom and some guy tried to look at your dick? But, as we’ll see when we start discussing the deleted scenes, there is a LOT of the olde-tyme Frat Boy Idiotic Xenophobia about the script.

[HERE’S WHERE THE BIG-TIME SPOILERS START > > > ] Then, as though to wipe the nasty aftertaste of all that nasty homosexuality away, Slevin goes home and has a nice, playful, intimate sex scene with Lindsay, interrupted by a largely pointless scene with Tucci as some police investigator who could have been left out of the movie entirely. That night Slevin goes to his date with Yitzchok, which is filmed in a wide-angle, off-kilter way, leaving one unsure if it’s because he’s about to kill the dude, or because he’s experiencing homo panic at having to go through with this “date.” He kills Yitzchok, then Goodkat shows up, you think to kill Slevin, but no, to defend him from his bodyguards and let him move on to his real targets. They drag the body from the opening scene in the air terminal, switch watches to make it look like Slevin, and blow up the place. There is a shot of Hartnett and Willis walking away from the explosion, which also appears in the trailer—with Willis removed, so as not to give away the crucial twist that they’re actually working together.

From now until the end [20 min?] the movie is simply explaining what happened—all the way back to 30 years ago—and this is where the energy of the movie just dissipates. First Boss and Rabbi are tied up behind each other and have a huge scene—fairly nice to see both of them having this blowout acting scene, although the “Blacks and Jews confront each other” sheen on this whole thing is fairly overbearing—then Slevin shows up to explain everything. Turns out that Slevin was the kid of the dad who bet on the racehorse [the name Slevin was the name of the horse], and Goodkat was the thug assigned to kill him. He couldn’t do it, adopted the kid, and they’ve been planning revenge all these years. Boss and Rabbi were involved in the killings, and as an unnecessary accent, Tucci was the man who killed Slevin’s Mom. Goodkat goes to kill Lindsay, but Slevin warned her and they gave her a bulletproof vest. The very last scene of the movie is a flashback to the moment when Goodkat adopted Slevin.

This means that the mugging and Slevin finding his girlfriend in bed with another guy is a deliberately misleading and false flashback. Some reviews I have read consider this cheating. However, remember when I said that this part was filled in B&W [with the outrageously patterned wallpaper?] and with a jerky camera motion? The director says on the commentary that this technique was deliberately to let the audience know that something was amiss with this part. Of course, you would never really know that, but it DOES look out of place. I also have no problem with it because it occurs within the context of his TELLING this story to Lindsay, so it is never presented as objective reality. I don’t get so worked up over it.

The deleted scenes on the disc are where the portrait of the screenwriter as a total cretinous frat boy xenophobe really comes into focus. In the first, Goodkat forces the black thugs, who have a great deal of Hip-Hop attitude, to be polite and say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Then there’s a long, purely comic scene in which the black thugs are driving Slevin while enacting some fairly potent racist stereotypes. Then there’s a meeting between Yitzchok and his boyfriend, who the director says is named “Ginger,” where they’re both sensitively touching each other’s faces and looking around petulantly and in general acting all womany. Then one of the thugs guarding Yitzchok tells a story in which he engages in kinky sex and ends up killing a guy by mistake. These scenes can be watched with optional director commentary, in which he says that the inclusion of them would “tip the tone too far into humor,” but I think the truth is that they would tip the tone too far into hatred and mockery of all who are not white hetero males.

This film tries to exist within the oh-so-ironic, ‘we can traffic in minority stereotypes because we all know better, don’t we,’ tone that South Park and Tarantino [although I would argue that some of this stuff is quite hateful] have perfected, but the virulence of its distain for everyone who isn’t a white male is so potent it can hardly be reined in. First of all, the entire movie is constructed around a white boy’s noble quest to get revenge, with the help of his heroic white male father figure, who spared his life because of his deep-down moral code. They are set against rival gangs of unscrupulous blacks and Jews, with the film using the enmity between blacks and Jews as easy color, offering absolutely no insight into the ongoing divide. We have already discussed the way the film treats the gay character [referred to throughout as “the fairy,” I mention again], although the naming of his boyfriend ‘Ginger’ is a particularly low blow. You will also note that the one positive non-white character, Lindsay, is a non-threatening, sexually-available ASIAN woman. The only other woman who appears in the movie is Slevin’s girlfriend who cheats on him and, if you count the deleted scenes, the only other woman in the movie is also a total whore. The next time Jason Smilovic wants to write a movie, he might consider turning off the porn and stepping out of the frat house for a few minutes.
< < < SPOILERS END

But Aryan ethos aside, this is a pretty nifty movie. It sets up the central twist just by forcing the viewer to ask at certain points “WHY is Slevin doing all this? There MUST be some reason for it all.” And his motivation is fairly compelling. But the best reason to watch this movie is Paul McGuigan’s directorial style. He employs a number of tricks to keep the film interesting, knowing when to juice it up with visual tricks and technical flashes, and when to step back. And best of all, his stylistic touches usually MEAN SOMETHING and enhance the storytelling, rather than just being empty flourishes just to add some style. When one thinks back on the story after knowing all the twists, you can see that many of the stylistic touches actually quite accurately hint at information that hasn’t been delivered yet. This film is very similar to his Wicker Park, in that it’s all about showing a scene, then going back later and filling in the missing information that has been kept from us. He can still be my favorite new director, I’m just going to have to put out of my mind his apparent lack of protest for the more hateful, xenophobic aspects of that cretin Jason Smilovic’s script.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it’s very stylish and intelligently directed, with an interesting story—and a fairly hateful worldview.

RELATED FILMS:
WICKER PARK is the director’s movie just before this one, and also contains a great deal of narrative shuffling and indirection.