Brad Pitt is Mickey in Snatch


Snatched from the Food Chain

Animal Planet meets Magnolia as Guy Ritchie gives us a taste of Social Darwinism. Can we escape the food chain?


"Logic and consistency are luxuries for the gods and the lower animals."
—Samuel Butler (II)

Snatch is, obviously, a double entendre. It is a pun and a metaphor. As a metaphor it represents that particular object for which men are prone to strive foolishly, blindly, and often ruthlessly, an object capable of reducing men to animals.

Director Guy Ritchie, as the latest victim of popular culture’s most ravenous whore/Madonna complex, complicates our understanding of just what it means to get some in today’s Maxim security prism. A salient feature of his Snatch is its self-conscious representation of human society as a violent world of human predators and prey. Like animals, those who survive do so by virtue of their relative prowess. The animal possessed of the greatest cunning and cruelty rises, as a matter of course, to the top of the food chain. Those who lack these necessary traits get (literally) eaten.

The scene that draws this parallel most vividly involves Turkish’s bet with Mickey the Piker on a game the Pikers (Gypsies) call coursing. A rabbit is released and two large dogs are then set loose to chase it. The bet is whether or not the rabbit will escape. The scene cuts between the dogs’ pursuit and images of Brick Top’s henchmen chasing down Tyrone, the small-time hoodlum and getaway driver who had, along with Sol and Vinnie, attempted to rob Brick Top’s bookie establishment the night before. Near the end of the scene, to hammer home the point, Tyrone is threatened, just like the rabbit, with vicious dogs.

Ritchie’s directing here transports the viewer back to those frightening grade-school nature films that disclose a grisly world where beleaguered animals are always on the verge of being torn limb from limb by efficiently designed monsters whose readiness to swoop down is as vicious as it is ravenous. Those films were horrifying not only because we tended to identify vicariously with the suffering prey but also because they exposed our childish imaginations to a world so dark, so completely devoid of hope, that we knew intuitively that the horror of animal existence could not easily be reconciled with the idea of a beneficent Being who had designed it all.

Philosophically, this problem is perhaps humanity’s key dilemma of the last 150 years. Darwin’s conception of the animal kingdom as an inexorable crucible of ongoing, violent competition must inevitably bleed into the conception that we human animals form of ourselves and of our place in the world. The optimistic primitivism of Rousseau is no longer plausible. Civilization, on this model, is neither a remedy to nor a corruption of nature. It is, rather, the inherent evil in the natural world working itself out in humanity. Snatch shows us our world as described by James Thurber, "this sorrowful and sinister scene, these menacing and meaningless animals."

The fittest animal is Brick Top. He flourishes because he is the most ruthless and the most intelligent.

Turkish, the narrator, and Tommy, his alter ego, are clearly meant to stand in for us. Together they represent humanity, situated as it is between heaven and hell, good and evil. The origin of Turkish’s name—he was named after the plane on which his parents met; the plane crashed—alludes to the story of Adam and Eve and their aboriginal fall from grace.

"Tommy," says Turkish, "tells people he was named after a gun, but I know he was really named after a famous nineteenth-century ballet dancer." We are given to understand from the outset that goodness has become a liability . It must be suppressed or hidden. Tommy’s interest in guns is a direct response to the threat posed by Brick Top. Turkish and Tommy find themselves, like us, forced out of practical necessity to deal with the devil. Along with everyone else in the film, they are caught in Snatch’s terrible nature-film world of implacable, flesh-rending predators.

Had the movie consisted only of these elements—the humanity of Turkish and Tommy forced hopelessly into a violent and dismal world—I suppose it would be a Tarentino film. But Snatch is about the advent of Mickey the Piker. It is about a mythic hero who appears from outside the natural world and who operates above it. If Brick Top’s evil is a regular feature in a grim natural order, Mickey’s goodness is a magical anomaly, a miraculous exception to the machiavellian machinery of Turkish and Tommy’s nightmare.

Consider Franky Four Fingers’s wonderful speech in the film’s opening scene where, disguised as Hasidic Jews, he and several other thieves infiltrate the security of the Antwerp diamond exchange. Franky discusses the story of Adam and Eve as a mere fable and then extemporizes on Isaiah’s prophecy of the virgin birth. He comments that it was read so due to a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for young woman into the Greek word for virgin, "an easy mistake to make since there’s only a subtle difference in spelling."

On the surface this speech is designed to provide verbal support for the robbers’ religious disguise, but its actual content functions in two ways. On the one hand, it affirms the desolate, demythologized conception of the world as jungle, as it is portrayed throughout the movie—a ferociously static universe devoid of ennobling forces. On the other hand it ironically prefigures the appearance of Mickey the Piker.

Snatch is a wonderful polemic for hopeless, deterministic naturalism. It shows a vicious Darwinism, inexorably red in tooth and claw, into which the Piker is lovingly placed like an Aeneas or a Roland. Like Christ, Mickey appears magically to upset the insuperable hierarchy of earthly power, to break the food chain into which the various characters find themselves placed by capricious fate.

Mickey does not vie for snatch. He wants only a caravan—and even that is "not fer me," as he tells Turkish and Tommy, "it’s fer me mother." He emerges from the humblest of origins (virtually every character who comes into contact with them expresses disgust for the Pikers, or "gypos" as they’re called) and acts without regard for the pragmatism to which Turkish and Tommy, in their attempts to cope with Brick Top, have been reduced (Tommy carries a gun that doesn’t fire). He is indestructible in the ring, able to fell whomever he boxes. When events deviate from their natural course, they invariably do so on behalf of the Piker.

The best example of this may be found in the absurd series of accidents following Tommy’s comment regarding Turkish’s carton of milk. You’ll recall that Tommy throws the milk out the window, where it then hits the windshield of the car carrying Bullet-Tooth Tony, Cousin Avi, and (in the trunk) Boris the Blade. After a crash, Boris, bound and blindfolded, manages to escape the trunk—only to be accidentally run down by Sol.

The scene works like that with the biblical frogs falling from the sky in Magnolia: a spectacular instance of Providential meddling. Its improbability flouts the natural order of the world in which the characters move. This contrast is highlighted by Tommy’s comment at the beginning of the scene. "You shouldn’t drink milk," he tells Turkish, "It’s not in sync with evolution." This statement, the most explicit verbal reference in the film to our modern, naturalistic understanding of the world and ourselves, is linked, with conscious irony, to the least plausible turn of events in the movie.

Near the end of the movie, Tommy asks Turkish, "What will we do if the Piker doesn’t go down in the fourth?" Turkish responds grimly, "We’ll be killed before we get out of the building." Tommy repeats the question hopelessly. Turkish repeats his answer. There’s no use worrying about it. It’s just the way things are. It is axiomatic: on this animal planet, Daniels do not survive lions’ dens.

Salvation, when it comes, is completely unexpected. It comes from the least likely quarter. The gods strip away our resources, reduce us to nothing, extinguish all our hope, and in the moment of our deepest despair, snatch us from the jaws of an otherwise indifferent fate. Apparently, it is their modus operandi.

posted by editor ::: November 20, 2001 ::: philms :::