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How does the film 'Layer Cake' reach the expectations of it's audience
In order to determine how ‘Layer Cake’ reaches the expectations of its audience, we must first determine who the audience are. There are many reasons why people watch a film, such as being told that it is a ‘must see’, watching a favourite actor, or reading a good review. However, due to their social characteristics people are generally attracted by a film’s genre.
Genre is a means of organising the production and marketing of a film (Cook & Bernink, 1999). It allows filmmakers to identify and fulfil 'audience expectation'. Before any film is made, finance has to be raised; it is easier for a filmmaker to sell and/or justify the making of their film if they have established trends to prove the popularity of the kind of film they want to make .
Cook (1999) comments on the paradoxical nature of genre, “At first glance, genres seem to be very neat categories, separated into distinct groups. However, genres depend on their ability to change or adapt in order to survive.” Genres have emerged as a way of predicting and fulfilling audience expectation. The audience want some familiar conventions but with a new element or twist. So genres need to combine familiarity with innovation. If genres do not adapt over time, they will die out .
‘Layer Cake’ is a film about criminals in the British drug scene from a British director. The director in question, Matthew Vaughn, gained his notoriety by producing films for Guy Ritchie. Guy Ritchie was the original proponent of the ‘British gangster film’ sub-genre, and Vaughn directed both of his major works, ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ and ‘Snatch’. Therefore, given Vaugn’s reputation and the marketing of the film, it will undoubtedly attract a sizeable ‘audience’ attracted to his self-popularised genre.
Although the comparisons are there for all to see, Vaughn is keen to distance himself from the gangster genre. This position resonates through his lead character (XXXX) in one of the very first scenes. "I'm not a gangster," he tells us. "I'm a businessman whose commodity happens to be cocaine." Conversely, many aspects of the film draw immediate comparison. Like Ritchie’s first two films, it is a crime-drama about inter-twined Londoner ‘gangs’ who “deal drugs” and carry "shooters". To go even further, 'Layer Cake' even features 'Lock, Stock' alumnus Dexter Fletcher.
Questions may exist over whether ‘Layer Cake’ is a ‘British gangster film’ of the Ritchie mould. However, there is no doubt that it is a member of the crime genre. The plot seems in keeping with all of the precursors discussed by Dirks(2004). Dirks argues that, “Films within the crime genre often highlight the life of a crime figure”. It goes on to say that they generally, “glorify the rise and fall of a particular criminal(s), gang, bank robber, murderer or lawbreakers in personal power struggles or conflict with law and order figures, an underling or competitive colleague, or a rival gang”. The lead, XXXX is not immediately in a competitive position, although he is forced into killing his boss as the plot develops. The suspicious nature of an intra-business criminal relationship, means that he is unconsciously competing with his boss.
The role of the main character XXXX, is one of the most distinct media representations within the film. Dirks (2004) states that: “The gangsters in a crime film are usually materialistic, street-smart, immoral, megalomaniacal, and self-destructive”. XXXX is certainly, materialistic, immoral and street smart, but he is not megalomaniacal, and his ultimate demise arose from his selfish pursuit of another gangster’s girlfriend rather than an intrinsic self-destructivisim. The characterisation of XXXX as the charming and intelligent Daniel Craig, brings the audience’s attention to the role of the sophisticated minds that run criminal gangs in order to avoid the sophisticated methods of the international crime prevention organisations. It marks a sharp contrast, from the bravado representation of Richie’s Mockney antiheroes.
The majority of the film’s other characters are instantly forgettable. Even recalling the names of characters after seeing the film required a rewind. With the exception of XXXX’s sidekick Gene (played by Meaney), the support cast barely caused me to raise an eyebrow. The role of the two crime bosses, played by Gambon and Foreman is unimaginative. Also, the audiences are now so used to cockney criminals, such as those acted by Jason Flemyng and Dexter Fletcher, that special scripting would have been necessary in order to keep them interested. This did not happen. However, the relative anonymity of the support did add to the pre-eminence of Craig’s performance.
The ideology behind the film is revealed within the opening sequence. XXXX sees the drugs trade exclusively in line with a business model. The effects on the end users are not important to him, only making money and maintaining a profitable business. Therefore, the business should be run according to efficient business principles. There is a fortune to be made as long as one adheres to the rules:
- Keep a small team , Keep a low profile,
- Deal with people who come recommended
- Never be too greedy
- Know and respect your enemy
- Avoid loud wannabe gangsters
- Stay away from the end user
- Stay away from guns
- Pay your supplier promptly
- Have a plan and stick to it
- Quit while you're ahead
- No exceptions
XXXX believes that in the near future drugs will become legally available from designer brands on department store shelves, but until that day there is money to be made so long as you adhere to The Rules, in order to stay alive and in business.
The film shows that although crime rewards the gang members in terms of monetary and material wealth, many of the members will have to pay the ultimate price. Also, in spite of the bravado, all of the criminals have a strong sense of fatality (i.e. the possibility of their imminent murder death). These ideologies appeal to the values of crime fans (Dirks, 2004).
The rules give a subtle hint to XXXX’s personality. However, Craig’s skill means that the audience does not immediately realise that he is a smug, amoral, hypocrite. However, he remains likeable, with an ‘everyman’ quality emphasised by a voiceover-heavy script that makes his ‘get-what-you-can’ mentality feel sadly familiar. The selfish monologue with its persistent scepticism about the trustworthiness of his fellow man is eerily reminiscent of the popularity of cynicism within society. The character goes a long way to meeting the average audience member’s expectation, by making them feel that his thoughts are similar to our own, he is “Just like us”.
The posters and marketing of the film, give a slight misrepresentation to the film.
The poster for the film consists of the words “LAYER CAKE” being formed from numberplate lettering, so that the A becomes a 4, and the E is a reversed 3. The graphic is of an iron burning the bonnet of a striking yellow range rover. This ultra-stylish cover conveys an edgy cult film. If this was Vaugn’s intention, I do not think he has succeeded.
In terms of the iconography within the film, Vaugn uses footage of XXXX walking through a shop that changes from a chemist to a designer drug shop, to show the short proximity with which XXXX envisages such a change in actuality. In the drug shop, FCUK perfume becomes bottled drugs with labels including cocaine, ecstasy, delusion, orgasm, and addiction. The inclusion of both positive and negative experiences within the labels is interesting. It shows that XXXX is well aware of the effects that his drugs have, but is acquiescent towards it.
The meaning of the iron becomes clear when one watches the film. It transpires that one of the gangsters uses the iron to burn his victims to death, and that the car is the main gang’s vehicle of choice. In fact, the image of the iron has become a dominant icon by the end of the film. Not only are we twice shown dead bodies with irons burned onto the chest, the iron is flashed onto the screen as a metaphoric accompaniment to plot. For me it signifies the heartlessness that can develop within criminality. When the gangsters act outside the law, they can invent their own laws. Therefore, torture is just a casual part of the business.
XXXX is the predominant character within the film. He narrates his life story, and is rarely uninvolved in a scene. ‘Layer Cake’ has a dense narrative; i.e. there is a very involved storyline. The screenplay is an adaptation of J.J. Connolly’s original novel by the author himself. Unfortunately, the film has a plethora of divergent storylines (which at first seem unrelated) leaving the audience confused. One is left feeling that Connolly should have been more selective with the parts he left in. A more streamlined adaptation of the novel may have been appropriate, as there does seem to be a few characters and side issues that could have been excised without losing the integrity of the overall story. An alternative viewpoint, is that the film challenges the viewer to understand the complex world of the gangsters, and how they came to be where they are. The plot is intricate and there are long conversation sequences. Therefore, it is hard to absorb all of the information that the director is trying to portray.
The film gives an extremely graphic depiction of violence. The main act of violence is a brutal act of thuggery inside a cafe. One of XXXX’s henchmen, randomly meets an old enemy in a café and decides to kill him there and then by bashing his head against the table. The graphic violence is filmed unflinchingly, making it powerful and cinematic. The use of an upbeat tune to denote this act is an ironic film direction, reminiscent of Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’. The tune is a cleverly selected uplifting Duran Duran song (‘Ordinary World’) in line with the ‘British gangster films’. Indeed, the music is appropriate at all times. Layered over the story is a varied soundtrack that includes well known songs from The Cult and Duran Duran, as well as atmospheric tracks from the voice of Lisa Gerrard.
In addition to this incident, fans of the gangster genre will be pleased to know that there are numerous violent shooting throughout. XXXX’s execution of his boss is a particularly well produced scene. In a stylish sequence, in which the characters are seen side on, XXXX reveals himself to Kingpin (played by Jimmy Price) before holding a gun to his head. The characters eyeball one another, and it appears that Kingpin will be given the usual James Bondesque opportunity to have a last word or even escape. However, the pause is only 5 seconds as the camera instantly zooms out and records the silent shooting. Indeed, the film has excellent special effects in general, and Vaugn stirs the audience by employing a vast range of cinematographic techniques with apropos.
‘Layer Cake’ has a seemingly purposeful lack of humour. Although, the rival gang can be mocked for their ineptitude, to me there are no scenes that purposefully engender laughter. Therefore, it makes an important distinction from a Ritchie film, where instances of comic humour are relied upon to keep the audience interested between action sequences. Instead, the film relies largely upon the story and settings to meet the audience expectation between action sequences.
The scenes are very important to the form of a film. Many gangster films fall short by portraying the unlikely scenario of the chief protagonists living in ethereal wealth in sunny city, usually London (in the guise of the idealistic tourist’s view). Vaugn deserves plaudits for filming Britain as it can look – sometimes dull, grimy in places with of course beauty as well. Audiences have grown used to seeing rain pouring and hackneyed clichés that have represented this country on celluloid. The setting is then in keeping with the down-to-earth personalities of the chief protagonists.
For most of the film, the Layer Cake appears to be a purposefully ambiguous title that could have many meanings. However, the character, Temple, reveals that the ‘Layer Cake’ is a metaphor for the stratified criminal underworld, as well as society as a whole. In this layer-cake world the art of a good businessman is being a good middleman. In the penultimate scene at the county club, XXXX and his fellow drug dealers are in fact eating a "layer cake". Film fans will enjoy the opportunity to understand an aspect of the film to a level beyond their peers.
The ending is the second memorable scene within the film, and is worth waiting for. XXXX is turning his back on crime and walking away with the girl of his dreams. He is obeying the rules and getting out at the top. Leaving the plush surroundings of a majestic golf club, Vaugn signifies XXXX’s triumph of personal morality by showing him leaving throught the doors of the golf club (associated with his gang life) and stepping out with his girlfriend hand in hand. This walk is accompanied by celebratory spring music in the background and XXXX narrating over the top in an unusually exultant tone. Unfortunately, the scene of bliss is interrupted by XXXX being shot dead by his new girlfriend’s jilted gangster. This is either a darkly audacious ending or a simplistic cop-out, depending on whether you care more about correct morality or the fate of the protagonist.
In spite of Vaugn’s best efforts, originality isn't one of ‘Layer Cake’s strong points. When broken down, virtually all aspects of the film have been seen somewhere before. However, in terms of meeting the expectations of the film’s audience there is a far more positive conclusion. Vaugn (through Connolly) has created a character with a distinctive ideology and although ‘Layer Cake’ maintains many elements of Vaugn’s work with Richie, the narrative and style of the film are original enough to appeal to a crime audience. As Cook & Bernink (1999) say, the survival of a genre is dependent upon innovation, and Vaugn has done so. Although the plot may be similar to Schrader's 'American Gigolo , the application to the crime genre is more than individual enough to be seen as innovative in the context of his excellent cinematic effects.
The plot, violence and style exceed the expectations of a simple crime audience. Therefore, this alone will satisfy some film fans. Furthermore, fans of Vaugn’s work with Richie will be pleased to see the commonalties in violence and Mockneyism that exist between ‘Layer Cake’ and ‘Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels’. However, as a fan of the Ritchie genre, I would have preferred more humour – and the pauses between action are simply too long, for those with a short memory span. Therefore, in spite of having the elements of meeting the general audience expectation, it is at times too stale for non-film critics.
Cook, P. & Bernink, M, (1999), The Cinema Book, British Film Institute, England.
Dirks, T. (2004), Crime and Gangster Films, www.filmsite.org.
Turner,G. (1993), Film as Social Practice: Routledge.