"Layer Cake": Drugs and Thugs Redux
"Layer Cake" marks the directorial debut of Matthew Vaughn, previously best-known as the producer of two English gangster flicks by Guy Ritchie, "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch." Vaughn's picture is approximately like Ritchie's but without the pretentious visual gimmickry and the jokey, sub-Tarantino tone. Which is to say, it's actually worth seeing.
It's a fast, compact and madly complicated criminal adventure set in the London drug world. The protagonist, played with oodles of cool by Daniel Craig, is a mid-level executive in the local cocaine trade who has so successfully maintained his professional anonymity that we never learn his name. We have to call him something, though, don't we? Let's just call him Craig.
Craig is a very careful man, a neat dresser who maintains a small interest in a real estate agency as a visible means of support. He doesn't own a gun and he never mixes with the crazies who actually use drugs. He's socked away a pile of money over the course of his quietly felonious career, and he's looking to retire. Then he receives a dinner invitation from his boss, Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham). "I'll treat it as a last supper," he thinks. Wrongly, of course.
Jimmy may outrank Craig in the drug business, but he's just a flush thug in an expensive suit. Craig listens warily as Jimmy explains that he has two "favors" to ask of him. Clearly, these are not of a request-like nature. Jimmy's own boss, Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon) — a drug kingpin so high up in the hierarchy that he could pass for landed gentry — has lost track of his crackhead daughter, Charlie, and he wants her found. Then there's the separate matter of 1 million ecstasy tablets, currently in the possession of a lunatic lower-level dealer called the Duke (Jamie Foreman). Craig is to obtain these pills from the Duke and then retail them for the usual handsome profit. It sounds relatively simple.
Of course things quickly start going wrong all over the place. Craig is unaware that the Duke, on a business trip to Amsterdam, has actually ripped off this ecstasy stash from a scary Serbian drug-gang leader named Dragan. Dragan naturally wants the drugs back, and has dispatched his top crushers to London to get them. And this Charlie girl — Craig manages to track down her junkie boyfriend, but, being a corpse, he's of little help; Charlie has vanished. Then, while Craig is having a quiet cup of tea with a colleague in a café, the colleague suddenly flips out and beats a man to death — making Craig an instant accomplice. Then Jimmy starts acting funny, and Eddie starts looming larger, and pretty soon Craig is packing a gun and sweating a lot and wondering if he'll actually live to retire. ("You're not getting out," Eddie coos. "You're just getting in.")
Like the Guy Ritchie films, and a number of other Brit gangster pictures of recent vintage, "Layer Cake" owes an obvious debt to Martin Scorsese's 1990 "Goodfellas." The sudden spasm of seemingly unprovoked brutality in the cafe clearly recalls the startling Joe Pesci flare-ups in "Goodfellas." There's also a discussion of unsavory things in the midst of food preparation (here, the gutting of a fish), and even a burst of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" on the soundtrack, just like in Marty's movie.
The elements, and the tone, are familiar by now; at this point, it's all about the assemblage. "Layer Cake" has been put together with a great deal of cleverness, and it slams along at a bracing clip, taking a couple of left turns that you really won't see coming. It also has a terrific rub-out scene — an assassination of an assassin that definitely scores high on the jolt-meter. And Daniel Craig, with his stubbly, deadpan charisma, is the perfect lead: half-hero, half-patsy, and not really the retiring type.
"Tell Them Who You Are": Daddy Dearest
The Haskell Wexler who comes across to us in this uncommonly eloquent documentary by his son, Mark, isn't only the illustrious cinematographer who worked on such famous movies as "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975) and "American Graffiti" (1973), and won Academy Awards for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966) and "Bound for Glory" (1976). The Haskell Wexler we see here is a cold, blunt and disputatious man of formidable intelligence and sometimes heartless candor. But he is also a man of lively charm, which is illuminated by unpredictable flickers of warmth; and he's rigorously honest in assessing himself, serious flaws and all. So by the end of this 95-minute film, with context provided by friends like Martin Sheen, Sidney Poitier and Julia Roberts, we feel we've come to see him whole, as he really is: an artist among other things.
Mark Wexler, the child of the second of Haskell's three marriages, grew up in the huge shadow of his celebrated father, and never made an emotional connection with him. Even though he eventually became a photographer and a documentary filmmaker himself, Haskell is still disinclined to cut his son any slack. Their differences are, among other things, political. Haskell is a life-long left-wing activist; he sees the U.S. government as the source of much injustice in the world and refers to George W. Bush as "our un-elected president." Mark, perhaps inevitably, is a mainstream conservative who actually has professional connections to people like Bush, and is proud of them. This divide adds an extra layer of rancor to Haskell's sudden flashes of derision. If he had been a better father, he admits to Mark at one point, maybe "you wouldn't be such a mess." In another scene, we watch Haskell walking away from Mark's camera with his lapel microphone still on, and we hear him saying to a friend, "His whole fight in life is to say he's more important than me."
Haskell seems as bewildered about his uncomprehending relationship with his son as Mark is, and it seems to be simple intellectual curiosity that leads him to participate in Mark's documentary. "Making this film can be a useful process for us," he says, and he wants it to be about "those things which are more profound than just the professional things." It definitely is.
Of course, shooting a film about a man who is world-famous for shooting films turns out to be a nerve-wracking enterprise — especially whenever Haskell shoulders a camera himself and starts shooting back. When the two men visit a warehouse where Haskell stores his extensive collection of filmmaking equipment, and Mark asks him to explain where they are to the camera, Haskell snaps, "If you don't know where the f--- we are right now, look around — you're makin' a goddamned documentary!" Later, when Mark asks him to step out onto a balcony so he can film him in the warm light of the setting sun, Haskell explodes. "Bullsh-- with the sun setting! This is not a f---in' Miller Beer commercial!"
That this is not some hidden side of Haskell Wexler we're seeing becomes clear in the score of interviews Mark conducts with his father's friends and colleagues, among them such actors as Dennis Hopper, Paul Newman, and Jane Fonda, and the directors George Lucas, Ron Howard, and Milos Forman. Most of these people have appreciative things to say about Haskell — about his pioneering artistry with hand-held cameras, for instance. But having directed several independent films himself, Haskell was always prone to second-guess the directors he worked with as a cinematographer. ("I don't think that there's a movie that I've been on that I wasn't sure that I could've directed better," he says.) And so some of Mark's interviewees, like the directors Norman Jewison ("He's a pain in the ass to work with") and Elia Kazan ("I would never use him again") are not unqualified admirers. Michael Douglas says that working with Haskell on "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (a movie Douglas co-produced) was "the worst experience in my career." (It wasn't a happy one for Haskell, either — he was fired in mid-production.)
"Tell Them Who You Are" opens as Haskell is celebrating his 80th birthday. He's still in vibrant good health, but he knows the clock is running out. When Mark draws him back to difficult times in their shared past, he seems ready at last to examine them. "Did you have girlfriends when you were married to my mother?" Mark asks. "Oh, yeah," Haskell says.
Haskell and Marian Wexler divorced after 30 years of marriage. In the film, we learn that Marian, once a talented painter, is nearing the end of her life in a nursing home, ravaged by Alzheimer's disease. The sequence in which Haskell and Mark go to visit her is the heart-rending centerpiece of the picture. When Marian is wheeled out by a nurse, her face an all-but-frozen mask of helpless dementia, Haskell goes to her and tenderly pulls a shawl around her shoulders. Leaning in close, his lips to her ear, he begins murmuring to her about all the things they did together long ago, in places now long gone. "We've got secrets," he says softly. "We know things about each other that no one else in the world knows." As Mark's camera gently moves in, we see sudden tears streaming down his father's face.
When Mark Wexler was a boy, growing up in his father's Olympian Hollywood world, he would occasionally want to approach some famous person floating through the family orbit, but would be too shy to do so. "Go ahead," Haskell would say to him. "Tell them who you are." And Mark's mother would explain, "What he means is, tell them that you're Haskell Wexler's son." With this film, Mark Wexler has attempted to communicate to his father who he really is — and maybe who Haskell Wexler really is — at last. It's a unique and luminous achievement.