The British gangster film Layer Cake (starring Daniel Craig, the new James Bond) recently concluded a surprisingly lucrative three-month run on the DVD rental charts. Most major releases take in a little less as a DVD rental than they did in theaters. Some do a little more. Occasionally, a well-reviewed art-house film will double its theatrical box office in DVD rentals. But no recent film has so outperformed its theatrical box office as Layer Cake. No other film has even come close. The $20 million in American DVD rentals that the film earned is about nine times its theatrical box office in this country. What happened?
Layer Cake is a phenomenon that we’re likely to see more of in the future, the word-of-mouth DVD hit. As such, it raises interesting questions about the future of movies in a business increasingly dominated by the home-video market—not just whether movies can perform markedly better in home video than in theaters, but what kind of movies are likely to do so. Layer Cake is a good test case in part because it’s a wildly complicated and morally ambiguous film. It also has the usual problem with Cockney crime films: On first pass, the American viewer understands approximately one-third of the dialogue. Its popularity on DVD suggests that viewers are willing to abide this type of difficulty when the “pause” and “rewind” buttons are only a thumb’s-length away.
Layer Cake was directed by Matthew Vaughn, who produced Guy Ritchie’s first two films, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Similar to them, it’s a convoluted caper movie that pits likable criminals against much-less-likable criminals. It begins with a narration by a suave and levelheaded cocaine dealer (Craig) whose character, never named, is identified in the credits as “XXXX.” He lays out the “few golden rules” that help him avoid the trouble that most hoodlums get into—always work in a small team, avoid loud gangster-wannabes “in it for the glory,” and avoid all contact with the street-level user. Unfortunately, just as he’s planning to retire and disappear, his boss, Jimmy (Kenneth Cranham) strong-arms him into an operation in which every one of his cherished rules will be grossly violated. Not only does he end up dealing with moronic cokeheads, these cokeheads get him in trouble with a Serbian named Dragan. That’s about all you can say about the plot without spoiling something important. The twists start early and keep coming.
Vaughn forgoes the technical gimmickry and manic pacing that gave Ritchie’s films their novelty. With the exception of some snazzy splicing of parallel story lines and one Tarantino-esque flashback, Vaughn tells his story in a straight, one-damn-thing-after-another fashion. The effect of this, oddly, is to make the narrative convolutions seem that much more random. In the Ritchie films, things were not so much crazy as “crazy.” He always let you know he was master of the chaos. Vaughn’s more literal approach, by contrast, makes XXXX’s sudden tumble down the rabbit hole feel like it’s happening to a person rather than to a movie. (The one departure from this admirable clarity is the film’s climactic double-cross, which is glib and jokey in a way that nearly undercuts everything else.)
This randomness afflicts people as much as the plot. Events force us to reassess each main character not just once, but several times. XXXX comes on as a kind of sexy supercriminal, completely in charge of his milieu. So, when things turn bad, we’re supposed to learn—per supercriminal convention—that he’s an ex-special forces guy with deep expertise in small arms, explosives, and nonlethal chokeholds. (He is, after all, known as XXXX. That’s like Vin Diesel’s XXX, but with one more X, innit?) But he’s really just a good-looking guy with some nice clothes. Sometimes he gets things right, tactically speaking, but he’s usually outflanked by events, and sometimes he’s a bit of a doofus.
David Edelstein has commented on the Zelig-like versatility Craig has shown over his career. He shows the same uncanny changeability within the 100 minutes of Layer Cake. When XXXX is gliding through his fashionable haunts, he looks smart and rakish, but when he’s been threatened or beaten up, his whole facial structure seems to collapse—it’s that striking. (Maybe, when its time for him to become James Bond, he’ll just morph into Sean Connery.) And XXXX’s relationships with his criminal buddies swing wildly depending on how well he’s faring. One minute he’s the recognized alpha-bloke, the next minute his security man, Morty (George Harris), is threatening to kill him if he doesn’t get his act together. (These shifting relationships highlight Layer Cake’s marvelous cast—especially Colm Meaney, Jamie Foreman, and an embalmed-looking Michael Gambon.)
But the one thing that should trip up American audiences and make Layer Cake a liability in the American market is language. We Americans are extremely particular about consonants. We chew the hell out of our Rs and hack out our Ks like we’re trying to dislodge a windpipe obstruction. The Cockney and semi-Cockney characters in Layer Cake pronounce most of their consonants like, well, vowels. They all sound like they’ve just come from the dentist. The easiest guy to understand is the Serb. (When you see one of these Cockney crime films in a theaters, audience chatter tends to consist entirely of “What’d he say?”) But people watching on DVD can just rewind and listen again. Granted, half the time, listening again doesn’t really help, but often it does, and just having the option makes you feel that this recondite mix of class and language—so crucial for these films’ verisimilitude but so bloody confusing—is not totally beyond your control.
I don’t expect we’re going to see a DVD-driven resurgence of the Cockney crime thriller, or even greater popularity for difficult films. But Layer Cake does suggest something that has not been discussed much in all the talk about the rise of home video—that this new reality might have a hidden bias for certain types of movie content. It’s easy to assume that this will be just another bias for garbage. But if Layer Cake’s success is any indication, there’s reason for small hope. Maybe, on the margins, in the shadows of the burgeoning dimwit and kiddie markets, we’ll see a greater tolerance for complexity, confusion, and edifying weirdness.