Revolver (2005), Guy Ritchie

Abstract

This film review centres on Guy Ritchie’s 2005 crime thriller Revolver through the philosophical lens of Nietzsche’s mature works; namely, the notions of self-war and mastery as presented in Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and On The Genealogy of Morals (1887).

Introduction

This is probably the first (and last!) time that a work of Jason Statham’s oeuvre is appearing under the microscope of philosophical analysis. (In)famous for films such as The Transporter, Statham is best known for his action movies reminiscent of those that went straight to VHS in the 1980s. That notwithstanding, under the direction of Guy Ritchie, 2005’s Revolver provides a hearty chunk to philosophically digest. Panned by critics and audiences alike upon cinematic release, it has become something of a cult classic amongst the DVD crowd (as Ritchie correctly predicted), and there have been internet forums aplenty discussing it, mainly through a psychological and/or Buddhist lens. However, still (un)fortunately afflicted by Nietzsche’s overbearing intellectual shadow, I have not been able to shake the need to give Revolver a once-over through the lens of three mature works of the gadfly.

Synopsis

Revolver centres on Jake Green (Statham), who released after seven years in solitary incarceration, is shown to have successfully gambled his way to a small fortune. Leveraging his status, he seeks to exact revenge on Dorothy Macha (played by a delightfully overstated Ray Liotta): a power-hungry casino owner who was the reason for his unjust imprisonment. Green duly humiliates Macha, only to subsequently fall foul to a mysterious disease rendering him with only three days to live. Along with this, Macha issues a hit on Green and executes his entourage, forcing him to enlist the services of two mysterious loan sharks: Avi and Zack, who promise him safety in exchange for all of his money, along with his unquestioning compliance with their demands. Through these supposed last few days of his life, we watch Green’s turmoil as he loses all control. As Ritchie remarked in an interview,

‘there’s nothing quite like death looming on the horizon to precipitate events’.

Key Themes

A number of themes re-appear throughout the film through the explicit presentation of a quote, the paraphrasing of said quote through a character in the narrative, and the repetition of it both explicitly and implicitly. Four key quotes appear during the opening credits of the film, and can be grouped under two main sub-headings: the Ego and Self-War. Firstly, I will focus upon the notion of the ego.

The narrative explores the following quotations:

‘The only way to get smarter is by playing a smarter opponent’ (The Fundamentals of Chess, 1875)

‘There is no avoiding war, it can only be postponed to the advantage of your enemy’ (Niccolo Machiavelli, 1502)

‘The greatest enemy will hide in the last place you would ever look’ (Julius Caesar, 75 BCE)

‘The first rule of business, protect your investment’ (Etiquette of the Banker, 1775).

Green’s desire to exact revenge upon Macha is a result of his ego, and intertwined notions of self-worth and intelligence. Upon exacting his revenge, his subsequent travails lead him to realize that it is not the conquest of external enemies — be they imagined or real — that leads to self-mastery, but a realization that one is playing a game with oneself, and that this is the result of one’s egoic self. Thus the only battle truly worth engaging in is with the smartest opponent one can fathom: oneself. Accordingly, when one comes to the realization that one is essentially conning oneself insofar as external, transient and contingent victories and defeats are fleeting distractions, one can thereby choose to engage in self-war onto the possibility of self-mastery, or what is known as ‘liberation’ (moksha) from the ‘wheel of suffering’ (samsara) in Buddhist thought. As individual ‘merchants’ immersed within neoliberal ideology, and in an age still suffering a collective hangover from post fin-de-siècle modernity, we fight tooth and nail to ‘protect our investment’; namely, our notion of our self-importance and what we deserve. Indeed, Green remarks en-route to exact his revenge that Macha ‘must pay; it’s cause and effect’.

Later, having been stripped of his material wealth, and his control over his own physical and emotional health, Green reaches a breaking point whereby he enters into a heated exchange with his egoic self. Represented in the film’s most striking scene, stuck in an elevator on the — curiously still non-existent in the USA — thirteenth floor of Macha’s headquarters, following not acting out upon his egoic desire to kill Macha, but rather apologizing to his nemesis and asking for his forgiveness, Green observes his ego retaliate against its lack of sway over his actions. Following this internal battle, Green is depicted at having come to a measure of inner harmony, which is juxtaposed with Macha, who, rattled by his enemy’s new-found serenity, is shown to be an emotional wreck, whose ego needs the fear of others to feel satiated in its being.

Ritchie remarked that he did not consider the movie to have any overt message other than that ‘there is no such thing as an external enemy’. Echoing Nietzsche, he further mused that

‘this is not a story about morals… this is simply a story about the game and there is no right or wrong… We’re all players within our own little games’.

This leads us nicely onto discussion of the Nietzschean themes prevalent throughout the film.

To become master of the chaos one is

As an ethical thinker concerned with that which an individual steeped within what he deems to be a decadent, fin-de-siècle modern European culture ought to do, Nietzsche advocated self-war onto the possibility of self-mastery, at the expense of developing a command of any given socio-cultural mores. As he argued in one of his mature works, the aptly titled Beyond Good and Evil (1886):

‘One must subject oneself to one’s own tests … although they constitute perhaps the most dangerous game one can play, and are in the end tests made only before ourselves and before no other judge’. (Section 41)

Thus, as Green comes to the realization that conquering his external enemies and accumulating material wealth will not bring him lasting peace, he turns upon himself in an act of desperation, and finds the enemy he had hitherto been avoiding.

He is depicted to have spent his time in solitary learning how to become the consummate con-artist, and his skills go on to serve him well in the accumulation of his fortune and ability to humiliate Macha. That notwithstanding, in spite of demonstrating a mastery within the dominion of socio-cultural mores, he still suffers immeasurably when having to forfeit his wealth — which he himself knows is completely transient and contingent — and the fear of losing his life — which he also knows is transient. Therefore, he is shown to embody Nietzsche’s dictum in another mature work, On The Genealogy of Morals (1887), that

‘we are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge — and with good reason. We have never sought ourselves — how could it happen that we should ever find ourselves’? (Section 15)

What the film does particularly well is to present Green’s descent into inner turmoil onto the realization of the irony that his — not insignificant — ability as a confidence trickster has been instrumental in concealing his greatest enemy from himself; namely, his ego. Thus in the film’s key scene in the elevator outlined above, we observe Green embodying the Nietzschean adage presented in his notebooks, collected under the title The Will to Power, from an entry dated 1888; in effect, during the period of his mature works, that:

‘To become master of the chaos one is; to compel one’s chaos to become form: to become logical, simple, unambiguous, mathematics, law — that is the grand ambition here’. (Section 842)

Hence, following his flight of liberation from the throes of his egoic self, Green is depicted having entered a long-lasting state of bliss, beyond the cycle of the joys of victory, and the agonies of defeat. Indeed, in juxtaposition with his remark early on in the film after having successfully exacted his revenge upon Macha, that ‘the harder the defeat, the sweeter the victory’, in the final acts he is arguably a proto-Nietzschean overman insofar as he has successfully traversed the prevalent morality of custom, and is thus necessarily ‘beyond good and evil’. As Nietzsche argues in the Genealogy:

‘to be incapable of taking one’s enemies, one’s accidents, even one’s misdeeds seriously for very long — that is the sign of strong, full natures in whom there is an excess of the power to form, to mould, to recuperate and to forget’. (First Essay, Section 10).

Echoing the notion of the creditor/debtor paradigm within the film, as we watch Green’s liberation unfold, we also see a most un-Hollywood of final acts, insofar as the archetypal hero is shown to not be gun-toting and out to exact justice, but rather ‘beyond good and evil’ insofar as he can observe his once nemesis Macha hold a gun to the head of a child — Greene’s niece — with compassion for both, emanating a fearlessness, and rather an understanding that like Macha, he too was once a mere lapdog of his egoic self. Having forfeited his material wealth, as well as social status, not to mention not knowing how long his physical health may hold out, Greene — as a Nietzschean creditor — has become ‘more humane’ insofar as he can endure injury ‘without suffering’, such that this ‘becomes the actual measure of his wealth’. (GM, Second Essay, Section 10) Greene’s ability — or better said realization — to forgive, is emblematic of his victory over the throes of his egoic self. Like any philosophically rich work, Revolver can be read through a number of lenses, it is hoped that this Nietzschean one will enrich any potential first/subsequent viewing of the film.

Sunny Dhillon is continuously at self-war, especially so when penning pieces like the above.

A version of this article appeared in Philosophy Now, Issue 119 (April/May 2017)

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Lecturer in Education Studies (Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln, UK). PhD in Philosophy. Interests: Critical Theory, Nietzsche, Krishnamurti.

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Sunny Dhillon

Sunny Dhillon

Lecturer in Education Studies (Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln, UK). PhD in Philosophy. Interests: Critical Theory, Nietzsche, Krishnamurti.

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