I’ve recently heard Argo, Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards just mere months ago, be described along the lines of ‘standard thriller fare’ by a few individuals in completely separate situations. In fact, it was also labelled “a whole lot of nothing” by a particularly disgruntled (but entertaining) voter last winter. It’s an accusation made at many thrillers including even the award-winning Argo (which, for the record, stands up equally well on a second viewing and so doesn’t deserve any such criticism), Lucky Number Slevin certainly fitting the bill as one such target.
I want to explain my affection for this film (which I like an awful lot) and the appeal it has to its mainstream target audience too, which it has does well with. Lucky Number Slevin, released in 2006 and consisting of a very fine cast indeed (Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Ben Kingsley, Stanley Tucci, Josh Hartnett and Lucy Liu), appears to have two key relationships with films of the 1940s and 50s. These, I believe, are essential in identifying just what it is that Lucky Number Slevin brings to the table to differentiate it from the ten-a-penny thrillers that surround it in the crowded market.
The first of these is a link to Alfred Hitchcock. A quite familiar trope in filmmaking, but for which Hitchcock is known in particular, is the idea of mistaken identity (‘wrong place, wrong time’). This is never clearer than in The Wrong Man (which, non-coincidentally, is the name which Lucky Number Slevin goes by in Australia) but it perhaps most-often recognised in his action-adventure classic, North by Northwest. A man is wanted, for crimes he claims he did not commit, and needs to find a way out of the chase. It’s the same trick used to kick things into action in LNS: Slevin Kelevra is Nick Fisher, or at least so say The Boss (Freeman) and The Rabbi (Kingsley), and their opinions are as good as facts.
In order to keep things fresh (after all, it’s been 50+ years since these films of Hitchcock’s), this setup is required to develop and indeed twist into something slightly different, which is also an attempt to steer itself away from similar waters that its contemporaries sail on. Despite this, there have been enough movies – before, around the same time and since – for you to guess what’s going on (even if you don’t know that you know), but that’s by the by. The influence of Hitchcock, which does also extend beyond this mere premise, is what really matters when evaluating the success of Slevin.
More important is the presence of the second feature, which is the inclusion of and homage to film noir, with Lucky Number Slevin posing as a loose neo-noir. The former is a period (routinely accepted to run from 1941 to 1958) – also classified as a sub-genre or style – which is typically characterised by certain features (contrasts of light and darkness), certain locations (alleys, bars), certain characters (antihero protagonists, criminals, the femme fatale) and certain themes (ambiguity, isolation and existentialism). The most prominent filmmakers thought of as creating neo-noir films are the likes of the Coen brothers, Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan, but even this bunch demonstrate that neo-noir comes in all shapes and sizes.
Whilst the presence of a femme fatale is at best up for debate, the inclusion is not a necessity in this ‘re-birth’ or celebration or evocation of noir anyhow. Slevin himself is quite the enigma, and we’re left to ponder many questions regarding his intentions, his past, and his general manner. He manages to meld the mould of Jimmy Stewart/Henry Fonda-type protagonists of Hitchcock with antihero sensibilities of noir films like Double Indemnity and co. What LNS does in adapting noir rules is to invert certain expectations: minority characters are promoted to positions of organisational kingpins, the two gangs appear to be exclusively Jewish and exclusively black, and the white well-off male has arguably been relegated to the role of the pawn (and even literally plays, and is played, at chess at one juncture). There are admittedly other white characters but they’re both on the periphery: Brikowski is constantly chasing a tail/tale and Mr. Goodkat, to me, appears to take the form of the femme fatale.
That’s no spoiler, as it’s obvious throughout that he’s playing these two criminal masterminds off against each other – we just don’t know why. It’s an interesting (although quite possibly unwarranted) switch, and it leaves Lucy Liu’s character as the only major female role (perhaps even the only female at all), which is to the film’s detriment. There’s simply not much defence for this, but the reason such change occurs is because LNS is attempting to avoid noir inevitabilities, otherwise neo-noir adds little to the canon. A film with a similar tone and thematic devices is Inside Man, Spike Lee’s heist-thriller which very firmly asserts itself as a neo-noir featuring an uncompromising femme fatale in Jodie Foster’s character. Both remain surefooted in not letting the audience know which way their characters lean, though the truth of each film is that the players involved are complex and morally-negotiable. They never fully commit to a philosophy either way.
The notion of ‘justice’ in Lucky Number Slevin, for instance, simply boils down to winning at all costs, and by any means necessary. The film itself – like many crime/gangster films – is seemingly set within a moral vacuum, or at most consists of a kind of morality which is flexible at best. It’s not whether you kill, it’s who you kill. And this is a great way to play to wide audiences, who generally have a surprising tolerance (and, in fact, desire) for this kind of behaviour. Look no further than the crowd-pleasing Taken for supporting evidence, where Liam Neeson’s antihero Bryan Mills goes around shooting up France and its civilians, including a woman doing no harm whatsoever, with his brief justification that ‘it’s only a flesh wound’. The ends justify the means in the unstable, warped minds of those looking for blood, not justice.
But these kind of attitudes – set within these universal rules – are exactly what makes noir, in whatever form, tick. Lucky Number Slevin works so well – at least in part (since we’ve barely looked at the details of the narrative itself) – because of its reverence towards Hitchcock and film noir, its status as neo noir, and perhaps especially due to its understanding of how to play towards a mainstream audience who have a fantastical lust for blood. And it manages all of that even with its terrible title.