Writer-director Guy Ritchie is as well known for his cockney-accented crime capers as he is for being Mr. Madonna. But for the last four years, he's been immersed in the esoteric mechanics of the human mind, attempting to shoehorn heady concepts about the ego -- what modern psychiatrists call "the conceptualized self" -- and its often malevolent influence into his latest crime drama, "Revolver."
The film, which opened Friday, stars Ritchie's old friend Jason Statham as Jake Green, a shaggy-haired con man who's released from prison after years of solitary confinement. While fulfilling a vendetta against a casino boss (Ray Liotta), two mysterious loan sharks (Andre Benjamin and Vincent Pastore) take over Green's life, forcing him into their dirty shakedown game.
At least, that's what happens on the surface. This plot is so layered with hidden references -- religious, mystical, numerological and psychological -- that even Statham had to watch it two or three times to really feel he understood it. It's a spiritual journey, sandwiched into an otherwise traditional Ritchie movie, the filmmaker's attempt to educate his fans on something more intimate than his usual fare. But Ritchie's quick to stress that the film isn't about cabala, the Jewish mysticism that his wife has so publicly embraced. But he does suggest that widespread awareness of the ego's influence on our psyches could even accelerate global peace.
This isn't the sort of film that Ritchie's fans expect from him. He's popular for his gun-slinging, testosterone-fueled crime capers, including 1998's "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch" in 2000. (His remake of "Swept Away," starring Madonna, is best forgotten.) Statham pointed out that "Revolver's" arty treatment of an already dense subject frustrated the average blokes who'd grown to love Ritchie for all the manly bluster and dark humor of his early films.
Despite the nasty reviews the original version of "Revolver" inspired when it was released in the U.K. in 2005 -- the Daily Mirror called it "a crime against cinema" (it grossed a meager $2.9 million in Europe) -- the director clearly cherishes this project. He's spent the last two years re-editing "Revolver," while simultaneously shooting a documentary that complements it. He has filmed more than 400 hours of documentary footage on the topic of the ego, interviewing hundreds of renowned psychiatrists and psychologists, clerics, Deepak Chopra, even master egoist Bill Clinton.
To help demystify "Revolver," Ritchie has ended the feature with a few sound bites from his documentary interviews. The plan, he said, is to release a series of documentaries on the subject, starting with one called "The Ego Has Landed."
Perched on the edge of his seat, in one of his favorite corner booths in the Beverly Hills Hotel's Polo Lounge, Ritchie was eager to mine the subject, appreciative of the opportunity to explain himself.
"The only sort of evil -- for lack of a better word -- that there is in the world is what psychiatrists now call the conceptualized self," Ritchie said, mopping his brow after a quick swim in the hotel's heated pool. "That's what they used to call the ego. It manifests itself individually and collectively. . . . I don't wish to make this too intellectual or even pseudo-intellectual. It's what we understand as selfishness and greed."
He readily admitted "Revolver" isn't for everyone and likely won't reach a mass audience. The main characters represent the founders of Judaism -- Abraham (Benjamin), Jacob (Statham), Isaac (Pastore) -- plus the pharaoh (Liotta) and their "mystical escape from the physical domain," he said. There's some inexplicable animation, an uber-tan Liotta in leopard-skin bikini underwear and a lot of loose ends. In a climactic scene, Green writhes and contorts in agony while locked in an elevator. At the end, he's seen playing chess -- and winning -- against Benjamin's character, seemingly a metaphor for his character's triumph over his own ego.
Ritchie believes the British response to the film, in which one man (Statham) conquers his fears by confronting his self-made limitations (the prison), was just proof of the premise's veracity.
"Anyone that preaches or exposes or in any way draws light to this aspect of self puts themselves in a position that has to be unpopular," he said. "The truth hurts. You are your own worst enemy. We all know these expressions. But what's at the root of these expressions? We're protecting our sense of self. And that's the trick. The irony is that you're holding on to all your pain in order to give you a sense of self."
Next up: new crime drama
Ritchie still considers himself a commercial film director -- he's in post-production on "RocknRolla," a Warner Bros. crime drama set in London, starring Gerard Butler, Jeremy Piven and Thandie Newton, and opening next year.
But he said the genre films he's famous for just don't inspire him in the way "Revolver" and his documentaries do.
"Revolver" "is the only film that's interesting to talk about," he quipped. "I struggle trying to remain enthusiastic about all the theatrics that take place on a set. . . . Incidentally, I have no desire to remain in this [crime] genre of filmmaking. I wish to do something completely different from everything I've ever done."
Considering his next film keeps him firmly in the crime genre, Ritchie is clearly torn. Eventually, he'd like to make a war movie.
After "Revolver's" dubious debut in the U.K., Ritchie returned to the editing room and trimmed 10 minutes, including a subplot featuring Green's alter ego as an animated character. This, after years of screenplay drafts.
"I remember this having more screenplay drafts than, possibly 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels' and 'Snatch' combined," said Statham, who co-starred in both films. "One particular script had a Japanese samurai that cut people in a particular way."
Ritchie was inspired to write "Revolver," in part, after an encounter with psychiatrist Steven C. Hayes, who advocates an alternative to cognitive behavioral therapy -- the de facto standard that teaches people to control thoughts and feelings -- called acceptance and commitment therapy. This new approach teaches that human suffering is a normal characteristic and by embracing it, we are freed from it. In the Polo Lounge, Ritchie was still pondering Hayes' 2005 book "Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life."
To illustrate a point, he pulled out his cellphone and read an excerpt from Hayes' book that he had apparently saved there.
"It could be," he read, "that pain -- and unwillingness to feel that pain -- equals suffering."
He looked up to explain.
"What the film's about is what's the essence of that," he said.
But Ritchie still had some explaining to do.
Trapped in his mind
"On the most literal level, it is about a man who is in prison," he said a few minutes later.
"But as he goes through the journey once he's released from prison, he realizes he was always in prison within his own mind. So there was the literal prison and there was the mystical prison or the metaphysical prison, which was in his noggin. And then, what he couldn't understand from his friends [Benjamin and Pastore] is that they were trying to explain that to him. And, of course, he couldn't understand it. So they had to illustrate it. And the film is the illustration of him breaking out of prison."
The ego's influence, he explains in "The Ego Has Landed," transcends the intimate and is inherent in the roots of religion, in the environmental crisis, in the cause of war. Yet for all Ritchie's research and retooling, "Revolver" remains a stylishly shot riddle that only the most devoted viewer will have the patience to solve.
"Something like this takes two or three viewings to observe what's going on on the other level," said Statham.
"I think the third time I saw it was the most rewarding to me. . . . Basically how do you tackle something so out of the ordinary [for] people that are used to Guy Ritchie movies? You have to alienate yourself from these kinds of people but at the same time bring them in with something kind of sexy and flashy. That was a great undertaking to try to do something like that."