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Paul McGuigan’s 2006 thriller “Lucky Number Slevin” elicited a binary response from its critics. There were those who enjoyed it immensely—I belong to this group—and those that condemned it for trying to be too clever and having a convoluted story. Frankly, I find it hard to summarize the film’s plot. That, however, is not because “Lucky Number Slevin” is a convoluted film that one has to wrestle with in order to fully understand what is going on. I simply do not want to give away the breathtaking twist that awaits the viewer.
This much I can say for its premise: Slevin Kelevra (Josh Hartnett) has just arrived in New York City where he is staying in his friend Nick’s apartment. Nick himself, however, is nowhere to be found. Cue a knock on the door—who’s there? Two gofers sent by “The Boss” (Morgan Freeman), a local kingpin and big-time creditor of the not-to-be-found Nick. Slevin is not the first person to assert that he is not the man that the gofers are looking for. Consequently, they take him to the Boss, who offers Slevin a quick way to pay off “his” debt: killing the son of rival kingpin “The Rabbi” (Sir Ben Kingsley). Soon thereafter, another knock on the door—who’s there? Two gofers sent by The Rabbi. As it turns out, Nick also owes this man a substantial amount of money.
“Lucky Number Slevin” is a highly stylized film. The set design is eccentric, and so are the characters. McGuigan has gone out on a limb to create a unique film that is in part defined through its peculiar dialogue. (Slevin: “You’re not as tall as I thought you’d be.” His soon-to-be girlfriend, Lindsey: “Well, I’m short for my height.”) Clearly, this makes the film a matter of humor and taste. I find this to be hysterical and dazzling—others may diagnose it as “trying to be too clever.” Of course, this is the risk that every filmmaker who tries to do things differently runs.
However, what is not open to debate is the sheer genius with which the film’s unpredictable and exquisite plot twist is set up and executed. There are not many films that play with the viewer like “Lucky Number Slevin” does. In fact, we are told what the twist’s structure is going to be right in the beginning by assassin “Mr. Goodkat” (Bruce Willis): “A Kansas City Shuffle is when everybody looks right, you go left [...] This particular one has been over twenty years in the making [...] It starts with a horse.” Yet we cannot see it coming.
That alone would make for a great twist, but “Lucky Number Slevin” goes a step further. Throughout the first two thirds of its runtime, the viewer is often left questioning the veracity of what they have seen. The overall narrative seems convincing, yet there is an abundance of details that do not quite seem to fit: How did Slevin get into Nick’s apartment? What are the real intentions of Mr. Goodkat? And what is the significance of this fixed horse race from two decades ago?
While all of these questions do not take much away from the enjoyment of the film’s first two thirds, they set up a twist that creates a true moment of empathy: All it takes is one tilt up of the camera to reveal the identity of a certain character and suddenly everything falls into place. This one movement answers all the questions that the film has subtly introduced, it unravels the knot that has formed in the attentive viewer’s head and makes him gasp a silent (or not-so-silent) “No!” as he realizes how elaborately he has been played with.
—Staff writer Jorma P. Görns can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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