Revolver / Youth Without Youth

| December 18, 2007

Whatever you do, don’t mess with Mr. Gold.
In Revolver, the new film from Guy Ritchie, a shadowy figure named Sam Gold is the prime mover of events. The very mention of his name is enough to inspire abject quaking in Dorothy Macha, the garish, spiritually vulnerable villain played by Ray Liotta, along with a passel of other gamblers and crooks. Represented only by his henchwoman Lily Walker (Francesca Annis), Sam Gold knows all there is to know about crime and greed, and metes out harsh punishment to those who let him down.
The only problem: Sam Gold doesn’t exist.
At least, not as anything more concrete than a very bad brand of karma. Still, Gold’s power is enough to spring Jake Green (Jason Stratham) from seven years of prison with a mean thirst for revenge on Macha, his former boss and the creepy casino loanshark who sold him out. Armed with a “staggeringly simple and completely consistent” con-artist’s formula he picked up in the joint from two fellow inmates who may not be any more tangible than Gold, Jake is determined to visit on Macha a comeuppance as natural, in movie terms, as cause and effect. (Jake’s formula also makes him close to unbeatable at chess.)
After Jake bests Macha at a high-stakes coin toss, Macha orders him killed by Sorter (Mark Strong), a sniper whose aim is matched only by his absurdly precise hearing. When Sorter misses his lethal shot due to a metaphysical fluke, Zach (Vincent Pastore) comes to Jake’s rescue, hauling him off in the backseat of his vintage Caddy.
From there, Ritchie keeps somewhat humorously upping the movie’s psychic ante, mostly at the expense of all but the most circuitous narrative logic. Zach introduces Jake to his business partner, Avi (André Benjamin of OutKast), a stylish chess junkie who can’t seem to match Jake’s moves. Zach and Avi, it turns out, are loansharks. Aided by Jake’s cooperation and hard-won cash (he really doesn’t want to give it to them), they embark on a plan to clean Gold out for good.
All this by way of saying that Revolver bears the same relationship to a traditional caper film as a roulette wheel bears to an even trade. For the price of admission, we are treated to modestly thrilling action and a few impishly clever scenes featuring chess, tanning salons and tacky Egyptian art shot by longtime Ritchie collaborator Tim Maurice-Jones, along with a Tarantino-esque burst of gristly anime, but are left holding the plot’s deceptively empty bag. Ritchie, whose last film, Swept Away (2002), starred his wife Madonna and was widely panned, seems not to want it any other way. Revolver, he has said, is about “seeing that there’s a very simple and consistent pattern that’s taking place [that] our mind is desperately not allowing us to see.” Very well, his new movie is better that his last one; Revolver is Sun-Tzu on peyote.
In the case of Jake, what Ritchie calls a pattern is a kind of innate inferiority complex which will not let him get beyond proving to himself and his old boss that he is a man to be feared, a big shot. Revolver’s defining scene features Jake alone in a stalled mirror-plated elevator after having confronted Macha for what he thinks is the last time. “You don’t control me,” Jake says to a reflected image best described as his greedy, pinstriped id, “I control you.” With that, the lift’s doors open and the cycle of rebirth continues.
Both the cycle of rebirth and the reflected double are central to Frances Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth. Based on a 1976 novella by right-wing religious historian Mircea Eliade, Coppola’s first movie in ten years concerns a radically extended human life. At 68, the God of American Art Films might be grasping at a straw.
Romanian linguistics professor Dominic Matei (Tim Roth) is in his seventies in 1938, facing up to the fact that his life and work have failed. Wifeless, childless, a joke to his fellow academics, Matei decides to end it all with a dose of strychnine. Lucky for him, he gets struck by lightening instead.
While Matei’s umbrella burns to a crisp on a street in Bucharest, his body gets a massive second wind. Under the care of Dr. Stanciulescu (Bruno Ganz), Dominic starts aging backwards, growing a full head of hair and a whole new set of teeth. Soon he is getting hit on by the nurses of his hospital and talking to his double in the mirror.
World War II is brewing and Dominic, thanks to a series of articles by Dr. Stanciulescu, is an international medical sensation. The Nazis set their sights on him as well. In addition to installing a sexy moll (Alexandra Pirici) a few doors down the hospital hall, the Gestapo dispatch warped eugenicist Dr. Josef Rudolph (André Hennicke) to study the strange patient in depth. With a little help from his double and a newfound flair for telekinesis, Dominic puts a bullet in the good doctor and escapes.
Coppola has said that he “loved the way one darned thing after another kept happening” in Eliade’s book, and Youth Without Youth can feel like a marathon of random action. “What do we do with time?” Dr. Rudolph asks Dominic before his death. Good question. Of course, any man who makes it to 101 as Dominic does can claim superior endurance, but the same should not necessarily be required of movie audiences. Watching Dominic wait out the war in casinos and libraries as he searches for the origin of language, I began to wonder if prolonging human life is such a good idea.
Arguing in favor of eternal youth is Alexandra Maria Lara, the statuesque Romanian-born actress who plays Dominic’s lover across the ages. We first see her as Laura circa 1894, breaking off her engagement to the too-studious Matei. By 1955, she has been reincarnated as Veronica, a Swiss tourist driving up a mountain in a thunderstorm. When lightening strikes twice and Dominic finds her in a cave muttering in Sanskrit, he has no choice but to get involved. It turns out that Laura/Veronica is actually Rupini, a seventh-century Buddhist acolyte. Soon she regresses even further, becoming a speaker of what Dominic’s double believes is the root of human language.
There’s much more to all this esoteric mumbo-jumbo, and Coppola clearly wants his film to “be an educational opportunity to learn more about Eastern philosophy,” as he has said. That’s all well and good, but something about the cycle of death and rebirth suppresses traditional Western dramatic structure. The chief effect of Youth Without Youth, beautifully shot by the young Romanian cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, is to lull the viewer into a kind of psychic trance. Some of this is no doubt intentional on the director’s part. For a paltry $15 million, Coppola has made an indie picture that subverts narrative convention as it rambles amiably along. Only at the end, when Dominic is forced to choose between his love and his life’s work, does Youth Without Youth achieve a hint of the pathos of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus.
Both Revolver and Youth Without Youth are subjective in ways not usually associated with film. Each relies heavily on voice-over narration, but instead of clarifying the action like Robert Mitchum’s offscreen words in Out of the Past, the protagonists’ voices speak in koans. Consciousness, it seems, keeps getting harder to record.

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