Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Lucky Number Slevin (analysis)

Based on the deleted scenes and director commentary for Lucky Number Slevin there are actually two movies happening, one which I like (the final cut that you saw if you watched the movie) and one which I really like (the original cut which the director decided was "too dark"). But the movie's confusing enough as it is (for both the characters in the movie and the audience watching it), so let's figure out what's going on at its most elementary to begin with. Then I will jump into my analysis of why I like the original cut better than the one which made it to theaters and DVD.

Major spoilers ahead. There's a lot going on in this movie and anyone who enjoys twisted plots (à la Tarantino's Pulp Fiction) should definitely check this one out. This is the best I've done at a synopsis of the plot that explains the essential details but is also (relatively) short.

Lucky Number Slevin revolves around Josh Hartnett's character, and he has three names in the movie. As a child his name is Henry, and his mother and father are killed for betting on a fixed horse race with some new gangsters in town (The Boss and The Rabbi) who wanted the race all to themselves. Henry survives and changes his name to Slevin Kelevra and teams up with the assassin originally assigned to kill him (Goodkat) in order to avenge his parents' deaths. They concoct a plan to get at The Boss and The Rabbi (who are now estranged from each other) by having Slevin impersonate Nick Fisher, a man who owes lots of money to both of them. Three names, one person (well, two people, but real Nick is dead for about 95% of the movie). Not super important to my analysis, but crucial to understanding what happens in the movie.

Slevin and Goodkat's plan is also essentially the same in both versions of the movie. Goodkat kills the real Nick so nobody will be able to find him (and thus Slevin will pass as Nick trying to get out of his debt by claiming to not be Nick) and so they have a dead body to fake Slevin's death with later. Slevin kills The Boss's son so he'll think The Rabbi did it and will want vengeance. Both gangsters (influenced by Goodkat) abduct fake Nick (Slevin) to confront him with his debts. The Rabbi just wants the money, but The Boss asks fake Nick to kill The Rabbi's son, The Fairy. Slevin and Goodkat kill The Fairy and his bodyguards and plant real Nick's dead body to make it look like he succeeded but was then killed by the bodyguards. Slevin reports back to the gangsters, knocks them both out, and brings them into a room together. The Boss tells The Rabbi he had The Fairy killed, The Rabbi is confused because he didn't kill The Boss's son; it's really a wonderful scene. Slevin confronts them with the truth of their situation (that he killed both of their sons, that they killed his father, and that he is Henry and is, in fact, alive) and kills them both the same way they killed his father.

Okay. Deep breath. We're getting to the good part now. One major detail I've left out is that along the way Slevin meets Lindsey, they bond over Bond films (yes, I thought long and hard about that pun), and eventually they fall in love. This is where the two versions of the film begin to differ. In the original cut of the film, Slevin kills Lindsey at the end of the caper because she's the only one other than Slevin and Goodkat who know what Nick Fisher really looks like. The movie cuts to a silhouetted Slevin walking into the shadows, and then cuts to Henry (as a child again) with Goodkat driving off into the sunset to begin their plan. This is perfect. Nothing needs to be changed. But freakin' Paul McGuigan had to ruin a good thing because it was "too dark".1

So here's what we get instead. Goodkat shoots Lindsey instead of Slevin, but she doesn't die because Slevin warns her of what's going to happen and she wears a bulletproof vest (and a professional assassin like Goodkat doesn't shoot her in the head). Then after Slevin walks off into the shadows there's an additional scene where Slevin and Lindsey meet up, and Goodkat shows up to learn she's not dead, and Slevin says he didn't tell him because "he wouldn't understand" (despite the fact that they've spent the last 10+ years together), and considering how masterfully crafted the rest of the film is it's absolutely astonishing to me how terrible these additions are.

So assuming I don't care about these (admittedly minor) flaws with regard to the characters and actions they would or wouldn't take, why am I upset that McGuigan gave the film a happy ending? Because in doing so he ruined Slevin's character.

So from here I'm going to jump into my analysis of Slevin's character. I originally came up with this analysis for college in order to examine Hyon Joo Yoo's concept of moribund masculinity, an idea she takes in equal parts from psychoanalysis, gender studies, queer theory, and her own genius. My personal academic interest in this film comes more from a purely psychoanalytic approach, but I'm going to include both connections since you readers might find it interesting (and it's basically a subset of Lacan's theory of drive so it's not much extra work). Anyway, here goes.

Slevin, as many of my favorite characters do, embodies the Lacanian notion of drive. He spends the majority of the film Symbolically dead. The basics of the plot allow for Slevin to exact his revenge on the Boss and the Rabbi and then disappear. Everybody thinks Slevin was Nick Fisher, and Nick Fisher's body is found dead in a crime scene everyone thought he should have been involved with. Everybody that could have positively identified Slevin as the real assailant is dead by the end of the film. In this way Slevin doesn't exist within the Symbolic order. As far as the public and the law (embodiments of the Big Other who upholds the Symbolic) know, Nick Fisher was picked up to repay a debt, was ordered to kill Yitzchok since he didn't have the money, and died trying to do so. The Boss and The Rabbi, who have been fighting for ten years, may as well have killed each other (over the death of The Boss's and then The Rabbi's son). No loose ends, no reason to look for Slevin, so he disappears.

Slevin's motivations and even the structure of the film also identify Slevin as a subject of drive. To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, here's that Zizek quote I always use when I'm talking about drive:

Of course every object of desire is an illusory lure; of course the full jouissance of incest is not only prohibited, but is in itself impossible; however, it is here that one should fully assert Lacan's claim that les non-dupes errent. Even if the object of desire is an illusory lure, there is a real in this illusion: the object of desire in its positive nature is vain, but not the place it occupies, the place of the Real... There is a parallax shift at work here... in Lacanese, the shift from desire to drive... This gap that separates the aim from the goal “eternalizes” the drive, transforming the simple instinctual movement which finds peace and calm when it reaches its goal... into a process which gets caught in its own loop and insists on endlessly repeating itself.2

At first you may be thinking, "But Slevin is a fairly goal-oriented movie, as most revenge films are." This is one of the ways in which the addition of the final heartfelt reunion ruins Slevin's character. Otherwise, once he achieves his goal we get a shot of him walking into the shadows and then the film rewinds to the beginning of the story when Slevin and Goodkat first meet. This circular structure metaphorically visualizes the way Slevin is "caught in the loop" of his need for revenge which literally "insists on endlessly repeating itself" (at the end of the movie we find ourselves back at the beginning). As a subject of drive, Slevin spends his life circling around the object of desire of avenging his parents (he exists within "the place [the object of desire] occupies"), and then when he reaches his goal the loop ends, he dies (when he walks silhouetted into the shadows), and the movie starts again from his beginning with Slevin as a subject of drive, after his parents have died.

The final scene with Lindsey ruins this not only in the way it disrupts the structure of the narrative, but also in the way it restructures Slevin's character. His object of desire changes from revenge, which he dies upon achieving, to love, which he (fantasmatically) achieves. Love is fine (it's actually pretty great if you do it right), but this sort of "happily ever after" love is lying to the audience. Not only is it clear that Slevin only wants Lindsey because he can't have her (he has to kill her; the movie ends when he tells Goodkat "I thought you wouldn't understand"), but also that Lindsey isn't actually a human. Lindsey is never shown to be lacking in the film, which constitutes her as not a human, but a fantasmatic object.3

More specifically, Slevin embodies Hyon Joo Yoo's concept a moribund masculinity, an idea most easily conceived (for me at least) as a more specific subset of the Lacanian drive. As Yoo explains,

The economy of enjoyment turns moribund when the subject swallows the traumatic real—created by the loss of what is most beloved, for example—which is beyond the subject's capacity to make sense of within the symbolic, and converts the traumatic real into a source of excessive pleasure. Here, the traumatic real becomes the sustenance of the libidinal drive. As the subject accepts the traumatic real as part of its psychic constitution, the drive for excessive pleasure entails not only symbolic, but also material death.4

Slevin has “swallowed the traumatic real” when he changed his name from Henry: he was forced as a child to face the death of both of his parents, which Slevin later says was “everything he ever loved”, that which was “most beloved” to him. After this, he created a new identity “Slevin Kelevra” with the traumatic Real, the death of his parents, at the center (his “psychic constitution”). He then converts this trauma into “excessive pleasure” in the pursuit (“libidinal drive”) of his revenge plot. After executing The Boss and The Rabbi he has reached the end of his drive, and walks into the shadows, a sign of his “material death” following the “symbolic death” he experienced as a child.

We can see Slevin's "excessive pleasure" in the scenes where he kills Lindsey (which was cut) as well as when he faces The Boss and The Rabbi (especially when he kills them; this is conveniently contained in the final cut of the film by the transference of his object of desire to Lindsey). Elsewhere in the film he always shows little or no emotion (he even claims he's afflicted by ataraxia, which is not something you would be diagnosed with but is instead a Greek term meaning "a state of freedom from emotional disturbance and anxiety")—moribund masculinity at its most basic.

So what's the problem with the rest of the movie, with the parts that were added to make the final cut? Lindsey has to die and stay dead, not just die symbolically but materially as well, because as Yoo points out again and again, the moribund masculine subject is asexual. Outside of his romance with Lindsey, Slevin is perfectly constructed as asexual. He spends the first forty minutes of the movie in a pink, floral-patterned towel in a room decorated with pastel, floral-patterned wallpaper. Josh Hartnett did not work out in order to bulk up for the role, even though he is essentially playing an assassin. He shows no interest in Lindsey until after he has won a date with The Fairy, and in fact uses his first date with Lindsey not in order to get closer to her, but to get closer to The Fairy. The closing scene revealing that Lindsey is alive feels incredibly out of place because it is: Slevin's interests have been abruptly displaced.

So why did Paul McGuigan decide to have Slevin fall in love with Lindsey? We can write it off as trying to sell the movie to a wider audience, but there's a much more compelling explanation available. In the director's commentary, McGuigan admits to having a strong affection for the actress Lucy Liu (who played Lindsey). Thus what we see in the movie is not Slevin having sex with Lindsey, nor Josh Hartnett having sex with Lucy Liu, but instead Paul McGuigan fantasizing a sexual relationship with Lucy Liu. This also explains why it was too traumatic for him to have Slevin kill Lindsey: as his fantasmatic double, there's no way he would allow himself to do that.

In other news this movie's set design is rather beautiful. Just had to mention it. The disconnect when The Boss's minions abduct Slevin between the atmosphere (of abduction) and the set design (pretty flowers) is so wonderfully alienating I couldn't leave it out.


1This alternate version of the film was compiled based on deleted scenes and remarks McGuigan made in his feature commentary for the film. You unfortunately cannot watch this version of the movie anywhere that I know of. It's really not very different, but the differences are all bad, and I'm annoyed at McGuigan for making them.

2Zizek, Slavoj, Living in the End Times, Verso, New York, 2010 p. 72-3 (my emphasis)

3For more on this dynamic of inhuman fantasy (and for an example of a positive depiction of love), check out my review of Silver Linings Playbook.

4Yoo, Hyon Joo, Cinema at the Crossroads, Lexington Books, Maryland, 2012, 114

3 comments:

  1. Loved this analysis, it made me rewatch the film whilst imagining the ending in which Slevin shot her (and as a sidenote it did always bother me that Lindsey wasn't shot in the head, because "master assassin").
    Just wondering, what was Slevin's motivation behind sleeping with Lindsey? I do have certain theories, but I'd much rather hear yours than embarrass myself by stating mine.

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    1. Thanks for reading and especially for commenting! This is one of my favorite analyses so I'm really glad you enjoyed it.

      As for Slevin's motivation, I have two answers for you. As I think I mention in the article, the director was a bit in love with Lucy Liu. I think that Slevin the character doesn't really seem to have any motivation to sleep with her (the whole ataraxia thing makes the situation even more confusing) and that instead what is happening is that the director wanted a sex scene with Lucy Liu so he created one despite the fact that it doesn't really fit Slevin's character. The second reason is a little nicer to the director, but his decision to make the movie what it is makes me feel okay with blaming all the movies problems on him. Anyway, Slevin perhaps has sex with Lindsey because she says he reminds her of James Bond and inflated his ego. But why would he jeopardize his mission that he spent (literally) his entire life planning?

      Hope that helps.

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    2. **movie's oops haha why can't I edit my own comments on my own blog?

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