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“You Understand Me Now, Don’t You?” Guy Ritchie’s “Snatch” and the Chaos of Miscommunication…

This Saturday, I’ll be discussing Snatch on The 250, the weekly podcast that I co-host discussing the IMDb’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. However, I had some thoughts on the film that I wanted to jot down first.

“Have I made myself clear, boys?”

“Yeah, that’s perfectly clear, Mickey. Yeah… just give me one minute to confer with my colleague.

“… did you understand a single word of what he just said?”

Guy Ritchie is an interesting director, in large part because there seems to be very little that actively defines “a Guy Ritchie film” outside of a few stylistic quirks.

Films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, Revolver, RocknRolla and The Gentlemen suggest a director fascinated with “hard men”, and some of this sensibility undoubtedly carries over into his blockbuster filmography, most obviously in the rambunctious stylings of Sherlock Holmes and most painfully in the attempts at grit in King Arthur. However, Ritchie has also spent a lot of time working as a director-for-hire on mainstream blockbusters worlds apart from that hypermasculinity, such as Swept Away, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or Aladdin.

More than that, Ritchie’s work is more often recognised for its visual flourish rather than its thematic coherance, the director adopting a high-energy approach to camera movements and editing. Ritchie’s emerged from British independent cinema in the late nineties, and his work shares more than a few passing similarities to the work of young and hungry filmmakers working on the contemporary American scene. It is perhaps too much to describe Ritchie as “the British answer to Quentin Tarantino”, but it’s not entirely unfair either.

This is what makes Snatch such an interesting film. It is Ritchie’s second film, one that notably added some transatlantic flavour to the sensibilities of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Indeed, it’s tempting to write Snatch as an inferior copy of that earlier film, as a reiteration of that striking cinematic debut with extra Brad Pitt thrown in for marketability. After all, this was a particularly common line of criticism when the film was released. While there’s certainly some substance to this accusation, it overlooks the way in which Snatch makes its arguments much more clearly.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is effectively a story about chaos. It is a narrative about a set of characters whose lives end up on a collision course, but without any real understanding of how or why that came to be. In many ways, it is a tale of action and reaction, populated by characters who lack the intelligence or the autonomy to fully comprehend the mechanics at play. The audience understands all of the forces at work in the narrative, but the characters remain blind to the internal guiding them along their path.

Over the course of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, the consequences of an ill-considered poker game compound with the ambitions of a group of college-educated marijuana dealers and the botched robbery of a set of antique shotguns. The plot of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is effectively a gigantic Rube Goldberg machine, where a lot of the pleasure derives from watching the constituent elements collide in unexpected ways. As cogs in this elaborate machine, the characters are often oblivious to the forces acting upon them.

This is a very nineties theme, capturing a sense of the existential ennui at the end of the twentieth century. More than that, it tapped into anxieties about an increasingly globalised world in which cause and effect were often so far abstracted from one another as to seem entirely alien. “Chaos theory” had entered the popular lexicon in Jurassic Park in June 1993, when Ian Malcolm explained that “a butterfly can flap its wings in Peking and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine.”

This sentiment tapped into a variety of cultural and political anxieties during the nineties. The world seemed a lot smaller than it had been when Berlin Wall divided east and west. There was a sense of unintended consequences, of invisible ripples across the surface of the globe. The spread of viruses like AIDS and ebola demonstrated the invisible ties that bound people together, fears filtering into media like Outbreak or The X-Files. Economically, the collapse of the Asian markets in October 1997 led to a 554-point plunge for the DOW Jones.

To be fair, it’s perhaps too much to credit Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels with consciously exploring these themes. It largely seems like Ritchie’s primary goal with the film was to create a broad ensemble piece with an infectious energy and a charmingly dark wit. It’s entirely possible that these themes were carried over from Ritchie’s influences indirectly. After all, Quentin Tarantino was very much in step with these nineties anxieties, particularly in his early work like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

Still, Snatch returns to these themes in a much more interesting way. Superficially, there’s a large overlap between Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. This is obvious even looking at the cast list, with Ritchie carrying over actors like Jason Statham, Vinnie Jones, Jason Flemyng and Alan Ford from one project to the next. Of course, there is some sense that Ritchie was honing in on his core strengths. He noticeably beefs up the roles that he gives to Statham and Ford in Snatch, to capitalise on actors who excelled in smaller parts in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

However, what’s especially engaging about Snatch is the way in which Ritchie approaches it as something of a cinematic grab bag. It exists half-way between Ritchie’s beginnings in British independent cinema and his eventual migration towards more conventional blockbuster fare. This is obvious in the casting, which juxtaposes Hollywood stars and British talent. Snatch features a lot of genuine variety in its cast, often pairing up actors for contrast.

Dennis Farina is an institution of a particular sort of American cinema, largely owing to his collaborations with director Michael Mann. However, he shares most of his scenes in Snatch with Mike Reid, who would have been best known for his long-running role as Frank Butcher on the BBC soap opera Eastenders. At the point that Snatch was produced, Jason Statham was probably still best known as a professional diver, but he often ends up playing off Brad Pitt, one of the most recognisable movie stars in the world.

Snatch is built around this juxtaposition of international stars with homegrown talent. Benecio del Toro would jump straight from a supporting role in Snatch into an Oscar-winning performance in Traffic. In contrast, Alan Ford was most likely best known for a small role in The Long Good Friday before he collaborated with Ritchie. Stephen Graham is now a respected character actor known for work in films like The Irishman, but he came into Snatch off the back of recurring roles in The Bill and Coronation Street.

Structurally, Snatch is very similar to Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. It adheres to format of a narrator conversationally relate the story to the audience, often including backtracking to clarify a point or pausing to elaborate on some seemingly minor detail. Once again, a variety of characters operating in various shades of grey find their plans and their schemes intersecting and overlapping in unexpected ways. This time, a plan to buy a caravan somehow leads to the lead characters getting hold of a giant diamond.

However, Snatch is more confident in its themes than Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. It is clearer in what it is trying to say. Of course, this is a Guy Ritchie film, so there’s a sense in which function is ultimately secondary to form, that substance is tailored so as to compliment style. Snatch is a film designed to showcase Ritchie’s kinetic and kinetic approach to filmmaking, so it makes sense that the film is built around a structure that allows for sharp transitions and juxtapositions, with a framework that excuses any internal inconsistencies as the work of an unreliable narrator.

Nevertheless, Snatch is built around the idea of miscommunication and misunderstanding. Characters frequently struggle to comprehend one another. There is a clear gulf between the various characters, and a recurring sense that everything in the film would be a lot easier if the characters were able to clearly represent themselves. Seemingly minor misunderstandings spiral outwards, often leading to hilariously disproportionate consequences.

The opening scene suggests this idea, as Frankie Four Fingers orchestrates the robbery of a jeweler in Antwerp. Posing as an Orthodox Jew, Frankie opines at length about how so much of Christianity must be based on a misreading of the source text. “Catholic religion is based on a mistranslation,” he explains. “The Septuagint scholars mistranslated the Hebrew word for ‘young woman’ into the Greek word for ‘virgin.’ It was an easy mistake to make, because there was only a subtle difference in the spelling.”

To be fair, this is a point of discussion among scholars, even though the idea of “virgin birth” long predates Christianity. However, Snatch seems less interested in the act of religious criticism and much more engaged with the idea of miscommunication. Frankie finishes his story as the opening credits wrap up, offering a thesis statement. “I’m saying, just because it’s written doesn’t make it so,” he tells his colleague. “Gives them hope. It’s not important whether it’s fact or fiction.”

This is stock postmodernism, of the kind that permeates a lot of nineties cinema in a variety of ways. It extends to the questioning of reality in films like The Matrix, Dark City, The Truman Show and The Thirteenth Floor. In Snatch, it’s filtered through in the emphasis placed on Turkish as an unreliable narrator. At various points in the film, events are depicted that are simply impossible; Frankie repeatedly changes costumes on a phonecall to cousin Avi, a car accident involves cars in the city and country, an explanation of hare coursing jumps from a car to a field.

These are all touches that might be considered continuity errors. More cynically, they exist as an excuse for Ritchie to construct the movie however he wants without having to worry too much about internal consistency. However, there is a sense in which this is conscious. A lot of the film is focused on Turkish’s perception of events, most notably when the camera follows his gaze Brick Top introduces him to the wild dogs that he keeps in his pit. These contradictions exist to underscore the idea that even Turkish can’t clearly communicate himself to the audience.

This is most obvious at the climax of the film. Mickey’s bloody revenge against Brick Top only really works as a twist because Turkish’s narration of events erases Mickey as a character with agency in the narrative. He casts Mickey as a comic relief side character, which allows Mickey to surprise the audience by resolving the plot. Turkish himself offers a mea culpa to the audience, pointing out how his telling ignored the emotional gravity of Brick Top’s murder of Mickey’s mother. “It had previously occurred to me that he’d taken the demise of his mother rather lightly.

It isn’t just Turkish who struggles to make himself clear to the audience. It also isn’t as simple as a linguistic difference. Flying over from New York, Cousin Avi struggles to process the local slang. When he is told that the local bookies got “blagged”, he objects, “Speak English. This country spawned the language, and nobody seems to speak it.” There’s a sense in which Snatch plays into the familiar trope of the United States and the United Kingdom as “two nations divided by a common language.”

Snatch is an international affair. The diamond caper begins in Antwerp before migrating to London. Even in London, the underworld of Snatch has truly globalised. After Frankie goes missing, Avi hops on flight to London. The film makes the trip seem instantaneous, which may not be too far from the truth given that concorde was operating between New York and London at the time. The plot expands to involve the weapon dealer “Boris the Blade.” Drinking from an “I [heart] Moscow” mug, he’s repeatedly identified as “the Russian”, but “to be technical, he’s an Uzbekistanian.”

Most controversially, this applies to the Traveler community within Snatch. It is perhaps too generous to suggest that some of the film’s portrayal of that community has not aged well. Snatch plays off a variety of stereotypes of Travelers, from their wily manipulations to their capacity for violence. The characters in Snatch take a great a deal of pleasure in using a racial slur to describe these characters, similar to the way in which the characters in The Gentlemen enjoy using slurs to describe the Chinese-British gangster “Dry Eye.”

Even if one is to be charitable to Snatch, to suggest that the film is cannily weaponising the audience’s own preconceptions of the community in order to blindside them by making Mickey the hero of the story, there is an uncomfortable sense of exoticism to some of the sequences set in the Traveling community. While there is something subversive in casting one of the most handsome men in the world to play a Traveler boxer, there is a sense in which this is a joke on the part of the film, an effort to “other” Brad Pitt in the same way pretty actors “ugly” themselves up for awards.

Nevertheless, Snatch makes it clear that the Traveler characters exploit this difficulty in communication. Turkish remarks that the biggest problem in dealing with the community is that “you can’t understand what’s being said.” Again, this is not a linguistic barrier, it is something more fundamental. Mickey isn’t speaking Cant. Instead, he speaks something that Turkish defines as “not Irish, not English.” Instead, it is just a way of speaking that is incomprehensible to those outside the community.

Again, there is something vaguely problematic in all of this. While Brad Pitt did work with dialect coach Brendan Gunn, and did meet with members of the community, by his own account he invented the accent while wandering around London the night before shooting. (He would later claim that he was inspired by a Father Ted character.) Rewatching Snatch years later, a lot of what Mickey says can be parsed if the audience pays enough attention. However, there’s something just a little distasteful in the fact that the DVD included a labelled subtitle track for Mickey.

Snatch hints at the paradox of all this. The world is smaller than ever, but this just amplifies the potential for misunderstanding and comprehension. Characters are fundamentally unknowable to one another, whether because they are actively conspiring against each other or simply because they aren’t really listening. The result of all this is chaos and suffering, death and destruction. There’s a fascinating cynicism at the heart of Snatch, one which suggests that human beings are fundamentally unknowable to one another because they lack the ability to make themselves clear.

Ritchie’s not a director who tends to deal with these sorts of themes on a regular basis. Indeed, Ritchie would quickly move on to the critical and commercial flop Swept Away, before trying to recapture his gangster credibility with Revolver and RocknRolla and then pivoting sharply to blockbusters with Sherlock Holmes. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. Indeed, there’s a tendency to assume too much of the director as auteur, prioritising thematic interests over the craft or technique.

However, this is perhaps why – despite the uncomfortable material involving the Traveler community – Snatch has arguably aged better than a lot of Ritchie’s other films. It is the entry in Ritchie’s filmography that most successfully marries the director’s craft with a cohesive statement. Ritchie’s frantic editing and fractured storytelling work in a story that is about the breakdown of communication and the difficulty in understanding one another in a world where nobody says what they mean.

Guy Ritchie has been accused of prioritising “style over substance”, and maybe there’s some truth in that. Luckily, Snatch finds a way to make each work in service of the other.

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