Why "Lucky Number Slevin" has probably the greatest plot twist in film history

Martin_Canine
Be aware. Major spoilers to a great movie follow.

Early in Lucky Number Slevin, Bruce Willis’ character, in a wheelchair, tells a man at a train station what a Kansas City Shuffle is. He detailedly goes on telling a story about a man who lays a bet on a horse of which he knows it was drugged. He borrows 20.000 dollars from a crime organisation in order to double the money, but the inevitable happened and the horse falls down, and doesn’t even reach the finish line. Now he’s in 22.000 dollar debt, and the gangsters execute him, his wife, his child son and the bookmaker. When asked what the Kansas City Shuffle about the story is, Willis points to the opposite direction of himself, in which the man looks curiously. There’s nothing and nobody. In the meantime, Willis got out of the wheelchair and now breaks the man’s neck. The entire story about the horse race was just a distraction so the man would not suspect Willis to be a killer, which is what a Kansas City Shuffle is: the whole world looks to the right, while you’re at the left.

But the greatest Kansas City Shuffle is the movie itself. Because its entire structure, dialogues, direction, plot, character development, even the title itself, leads you to believe you are watching an entire different kind of film than it actually is - it’s all played in a way so your own expectations and experiences from other films prevent you from solving a mystery whose solution is always right there before your eyes. It’s a con, but it doesn’t trick you as much as you trick yourself.

The story focuses on Slevin Kelevra (Josh Hartnett), a man who wants to visit his friend Nick Fisher and gets robbed along the way. Slevin is big mouthed, and even jokes in the most serious of situations, which more than once leads to him being punched as a running gag. When Nick’s neighbor Lindsey (Lucy Liu) comes to his apartment to get some sugar, she finds Slevin with a broken nose from the robbery but Nick is nowhere to be seen - together the two try to find out what happened to Nick, and come closer to each other in the process. It turns out Nick mysteriously vanished, and has problems with two different gangster bosses who are in a gang war: he owns 96.000 dollars to The Boss (Morgan Freeman), and 33.000 dollars to The Rabbi (Ben Kingsley). They live in two different skyscrapers on the opposite sites of the same street. The Boss’s son has recently been killed by The Rabbi - and he now wants to take revenge by killing The Fairy, the son of The Rabbi. Since Slevin is alone in his apartment and has no ID, both gangsters assume that Slevin is Fisher and kidnap him separately. The Boss now orders “Nick” to kill The Fairy in order to pay back his debt, while the same time, The Rabbi claims his money back this week. Now Slevin has to stand in for Nick. Lindsey concludes that Nick knew in how much trouble he was, ran away and tricked Slevin into taking his place. Every once in a while, Bruce Willis’ character appears in both The Rabbi’s and The Boss’s office, visible to us but not Slevin, acting mysteriously. Who could he be?

Many American critics often called it a Tarantino wannabe, and I see where that is coming from. Gangsters, dialogues and. But more than to the master himself, Lucky Number Slevin reminds me of Guy Ritchie’s work, in that the witty dialogues in the movie don’t come across as cool and aesthetic, but straightforward comical, like punchlines. For quite some time, the movie even looks like a modern remake of a Jack Lemmon comedy, with Hartnett being Lemmon playing an innocent man, who is rather clownish than actually threatening, finding himself between gangsters. During most of the scenes that don’t involve The Boss or The Rabbi, a cartoonish, cheerful score is played, with many lines of dialogue (and also the interior designs of the rooms) being similarly fun and light hearted, it’s almost like a screwball comedy (especially the chemistry between Liu and Hartnett). Although the movie starts off with a bunch of out-of-context violent scenes, they appear to be part of that certain touch of seriousness that almost all comedies have at one point in order to keep the story going (even silly movies such as Dumb and Dumber or A Million Ways To Die in the West have to pause the laughing parade at one point to develop a plot, and even do it in fairly drastic fashions). The villains in comedies are sometimes similar to those of serious movies in that they are an actual threat to the protagonist, that’s why we don’t question why there are more violent acts in between, as it’s probably to establish how dangerous the bad guys are. We assume that the focus of the film is to deliver a light hearted and humorous interpretation of the well known plot about an innocent man trying to prove he’s not guilty. One scene even mentions Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

In German, there is a name for this genre: “Verwechslungskomödie”, which literally translates to “confusion comedy”. Although some sites say the English term is “comedy of errors”, it’s not commonly used to describe a movie like in German language territory. A Verwechslungskomödie is characterized by one or more protagonists who are either mistaken for or pretend to be someone else. Notable movies that are usually described as a Verwechslungskomödie are Some Like It Hot, ¡Three Amigos!, Big Business or The Great Dictator. Lucky Number Slevin poses exactly as this kind of movie, with a harmless and somewhat naively cheeky main character who has to fulfill a gangster’s task due to unfortunate coincidences.

It’s the big Kansas City Shuffle of the movie. We are fooled by the colorful visuals, the quirky music, and the funny dialogues, and immediately think we remotely know how this will evolve. Slevin will spend the entire movie without killing someone, except maybe in self defense in the big finale. The Boss and the Rabbi will survive or not (probably make up), and it will turn out that Bruce Willis’ character is the main villain who killed the Boss’ son and perhaps also Nick Fisher, maybe for personal revenge or because he wants to be the new boss in town himself, what do I know. In the end, Slevin and Lindsey would stop him and live happily ever after. That’s a storyline we’d expect from such a movie. The thing is: Lucky Number Slevin isn’t such a movie. It’s darker and more complex.

The scene, in which the tone and genre of the film dramatically changes is that in which Slevin, a character we found to be harmless and goofy, cold bloodedly shoots The Fairy, and in a pretty damn graphic fashion (we see his final moments from his perspective). At first, this scene shocks us, as it doesn’t fit into the image we have of Slevin. Then we assume for a moment that it may be just a flaw in the screenplay for him to actually act this far out of character. Right after the shot, Bruce Willis (whose character we now know to be called Mr. Goodkat) steps in, and we recall an earlier scene which indicated he will shoot Slevin after he killed The Rabbi’s son. But instead he aims for The Fairy who wasn’t mortally wounded by Slevin and kills him instead, saving Slevin. Then they start behaving very friendly towards each other and start manipulating the crime scene very professionally. Goodkat brings in the body of the man he killed at the train station and they switch the man’s and Slevin’s watches before setting the apartment on fire, making it look as if Slevin died next to The Fairy.

Goodkat now goes to The Boss, telling him that the job was done, while Slevin goes to The Rabbi to bring him his money - and each character kidnaps one of the gangster bosses. The Rabbi and The Boss wake up back to back, tied to two chairs, and Slevin now reveals the true story. He is the kid from the story told in the beginning of the movie, whose parents were killed by gangsters when his father lost the bet at the horse race. The Boss and The Rabbi were said gangsters, and Goodkat was hired to kill Slevin as a child, but instead spared him and secretly raised him. Nick Fisher, who is now revealed as the man that Goodkat killed at the train station, was just some guy that happened to owe money to both gangsters, and it was Goodkat who suggested The Boss and The Rabbi to let him do the dirty job and let him pay back his debt, respectively, to give Slevin full access to their offices. It was all part of a plan of Slevin and Goodkat to take revenge at the bosses - first, killing their sons like they killed his family (it was Slevin who killed The Boss’s son, not The Rabbi) and then letting them suffocate to death.

The story about the horse race that seemed to be little more than a distraction to demonstrate the Kansas City Shuffle became the central part of the story, and the light hearted way we are introduced to the plot was all a cover up for the film’s true, vile nature. After the killing of The Fairy, everything changes. The comical lines stop, the scores has a dramatic style change, Slevin acts very cold, even the bright and ridiculously stylish color scheme becomes sinister and gritty. But it’s still fully thought out and makes sense - we never see Slevin playing his role when he’s on his own, he seems to be constantly surrounded by at least one character who is not involved in the plan. At the same time, despite killing innocent people for his revenge (Nick Fisher, The Fairy, The Boss’s Son,...) he’s not a cruel monster, as his relationship with Lindsey is real, and he eventually saves her from being killed by Goodkat.

There are more details to the plot twist - there are bookmakers, a police detective and a song called “Kansas City Shuffle” involved, and overall, the revelation of the entire truth lasts for about thirty minutes. It just shows how clever the film is, as several scenes actually aren’t what we saw in them. We just filled the gaps for ourselves, and interpreted them in a way that fits our expectations of a crime comedy film. Very early in the movie we could already solve the puzzle, as the young boy and Slevin have the same watch, which is clearly shown several times. Heck, the characters refer to it several times, both as a kid and as an adult, and we still fail to see it. You know why? By the time we first see the adult Slevin, we already assume that the horse race story was made up by Goodkat.

From the beginning to the big revelation of his true identity, Slevin’s backstory is very thin. He was robbed and therefore has no ID, that’s why he can’t prove he’s the wrong man. That’s about it. The reason why we fall for it and never suspect him to be anything other than he claims is that
A. we know for certain he’s not Nick Fisher, as Lindsey knows how Nick looks like.
B. we think we know how this type of movie works, and it’s not one where a plot twist of this extent can be expected.

There are some magnificent, fully developed and incredibly complex plot twists. And if you watch the movie twice, you will find yourself angry at yourself because the final puzzle piece was there all the time. Sometimes plot twists are a mere solving of a case (“and the murder is…”), but the other, more interesting kind takes its time slowly unraveling all the little details along with you and the characters involved. There are flashbacks to earlier scenes that now have a different context, goosebumps inducing music and the jaw dropping moment when the characters realize what happened.
Movies that have such plot twists are whodunnits, psychological thrillers or psychological horror flicks. In other words: serious films that continuously build up to a climax. Lucky Number Slevin on the other hand does all this in another way: it builds up trust for its protagonist that’s completely unjustified, simply by pretending the movie isn’t as clever as it actually is.

I said even the title is all trickery, and it is. We assume it’s just a silly pun on the phrase “lucky number seven” and the name of the protagonist, because that would be fitting for a comedy movie, but as it turns out in the end, it has a deeper meaning to the plot, as it was the losing horse’s name, that was ultimately the death warrant for the protagonist’s father - and none of the people involved into the incident remembered it and realized that Slevin used it as his fake name, showing how unimportant the murder was to all of them. Which, ironically, lead to their own deaths.

---

Lucky Number Slevin is one of those American movies that received mixed reviews in their country of origin but euphoric ones from the German press. German film fans celebrate it as a masterpiece, and it currently has an average of 8.0 on the popular website Moviepilot.de (to give you a comparison, Schindler’s List has one of 7.9 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest one of 8.1). On IMDB, it has an average of 7.8 (which remotely translates to a 7.2 rating on Moviepilot, as the average is generally lower there), which isn’t half bad either and definitely higher than the opinion of professional American critics, but it still won’t appear highly on the site’s Top 250 anytime soon (to make the same comparison, Schindler’s List has an average of 8.9, and Cuckoo’s Nest has one of 8.7 on IMDB).
In addition to all of that, the movie also ranks highly among my personal favorite movies.

Comments

P