Sunday, August 28, 2011

Lucky Number Slevin

Lucky Number Slevin is a movie that tricks the audience (spoilers to follow). This is important because there is definite distinction between tricking our protagonist - the character with whom the audience is usually supposed to sympathize with - and tricking the audience, whose very embodiment in the film is channeled (usually) through the protagonist. The difference between the two is that there is a clear violation of trust in tricking the audience not involved in tricking the protagonist.

The nature of trust stems from the principle of sympathy in films. We, the audience, need to embody our emotions in a character in which to understand the story. And so, we do that with a character who gains our sympathies. We want to feel things - and if we feel for a character, we root for them, and thus put our own emotional backing within that character. In Star Wars, Luke wants to become a Jedi; his parents die; Han Solo makes fun of him; and we emotionally back Luke - we want him to succeed. Luke becomes the embodiment of our sympathy and eventually so do the other cast of characters in the film, as well. In Lucky Number Slevin, the introduction is a bit more unconventional, but we are eventually made to believe that a guy named Slevin is our protagonist. And so, through his constant perils at the mishaps of mistaken identity at the hands of mafia henchmen, we are probably going to sympathize with him.

However, when characters do things that violate our trust - things that we disagree with - we (the audience) become unsympathetic to them. This is most common with villains, the "bad guys," of a story. Back in Star Wars, Darth Vader chokes the helpless rebel man who doesn't know where the Death Star plans are; he chokes again his own subordinates on the Death Star; he kills our dear friend, Obi-Wan. As a result, we don't like him - we are unsympathetic to him; and as a result, we don't want him to succeed. Rather, we want our protagonist, Luke, to succeed. In Lucky Number Slevin, we see the mob bosses and assassins of the film as unsympathetic in general, for they run contrary to Slevin's goals. They want Slevin dead, hurt, mangled, or otherwise. So we want Slevin to win, right?

Things become complicated when the film unveils it master trick, or "twist" (called a 'Kansas City Shuffle,' no doubt). Tricks are usually nice in movies - we like a good twist. But since Lucky Number Slevin tricks the audience rather than the protagonist, it fails to win our sympathies. When we find out that Slevin was really working with Mr. Goodkat, it meant that Slevin was lying to us the entire time. And because he was lying to us, that is a clear violation of our trust and we lose our sympathy with him as an audience. As a result, we don't feel anything in the twist - we just feel that we were lied to. We can't embody ourselves in him anymore as a character, because we never really knew him. In Star Wars, when it was revealed that Darth Vader was Luke's father, we felt that, because it wasn't revealed to the audience, per se - it was revealed to Luke. And we were right there with him, taking in all the joys and sorrows of his journey.

But Lucky Number Slevin violates this trust in tricking the audience, not the protagonist. We don't feel for the twist because Slevin wasn't tricked - we were. And the filmmakers knew that. Slevin knew everything that was going on, and we were led to believe that he was just as clueless as we were. We were rooting for him because we thought he was in peril. When we find out he was just deceiving us the whole time, we have no one to sympathize with who isn't killed, except for perhaps Lucy Liu's character. The one moment of redemption in the film is when she is saved, for she is one of the few characters kept alive who didn't know Slevin was a liar. When she dies, the movie becomes cold to us; when she is saved, there is some hope left.

Lucky Number Slevin is a movie that violates our trust, and in so doing, loses the audience. Movies are all about trust - we trust our characters, and we trust the filmmakers to provide a certain experience. When that trust is violated it breaks the suspension of disbelief and our sympathy. If we can't feel anything from a movie, then that movie failed to do what movies should do - and that is to tell us a story, not trick us for the sake of it.

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At 9/06/2011 5:51 PM, Blogger Igor Hardy said...

That's an interesting approach. Looking at the audience investment in a character as a kind of trust, that can be easily broken by overcreative writers that don't respect certain genre conventions. Or rather certain unspoken rules of storytelling fairness.

I still wonder though. I've seen the movie, but I somehow disliked Slevin's character from the start and I didn't mind at all that he was revealed to be someone different than he seemed at first.

On the other hand, I always felt cheated as a reader/viewer/player whenever the entire plot was revealed at the end as the main character's dream/hallucination/vision. This always struck me as a cheap cop-out, but most people seem to respond very positively to such "twists".

At 9/06/2011 6:20 PM, Blogger TheJBurger said...

I think the writers intentionally broke that trust barrier - whether it paid off or not is up to each viewer.

The twist was good - it's just that it created a kind of revulsion, at least for me, in that it wasn't a "Oh man, that was crazy!" type of moment. Rather it was a "What? He lied to me the whole time!" type of moment, in the way that we were being led by a red herring.

At 11/17/2011 9:28 AM, Blogger xlomid said...

I didn't feel cheated, though I certainly felt surprised when the twist was revealed. And strangely enough (or is it strange?) I enjoyed the twist.
I still liked the protagonist for the style with which he had been deceiving everyone (not the audience, though- it's filmmaker, not Slevin, who was deceiving the audience), and I felt for him after learning his motives. Guess it's a matter of how you like your tofu, eh?

At 1/16/2012 11:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must disagree with you on this one. Your arguments that the audience was tricked not the character thus the story was bad (cheap tricks are bad...)is true in the case of traditional story telling and that idea is taught in pretty much every creative writing class. The difference with this movie is that it tries to break out of that mold. The problem with cheap trick endings is that the audience has no way of seeing them coming. The story lacks foreshadowing. The audience feels cheated. This is different. The whole beginning of this movie is foreshadowing. The foreshadowing is designed in such a way that the audience has no possible chance of predicting the ending, but it's still there. So when the twist occurs and the audience begins to piece together what is happening they tie the story to previous bits of foreshadowing found earlier in the movie (or in this case the movie baby steps them through it by re-showing those clips) thus the audience feels lied to and tricked...because they were, but not cheated. Thus they see the movie in a positive light, as the reviews for this movie are quite good. (7.8/10 on imdb). It's not so much bad as it is non-traditional.


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