Matthew Vaughn’s Layer Cake is lean, mean, tough, and tragic. It is a gangster film in the tradition of The Long Good Friday, and if it doesn’t have the epic scope that elevated Casino above other entries in the genre, it’s got echoes of that Scorsese masterpiece and a lot of good stuff on its own.
Like Casino, Layer Cake tells the story of a man who is incredibly good at being a criminal but makes the mistake of believing that he can stop being one. Both DeNiro’s Sam Rothstein and Daniel Craig’s unnamed drug dealer want to go straight, but quickly find that they’ve gotten in too deep, that people depend on them, and that those people will not just let them walk away. Craig’s drug dealer is a smart, but self-centered man who believes he’s better than the guys he works for and the guys who work for him.
Craig’s slimy, crafty performance is very convincing and effective. He’s surrounded by similarly talented performers in the always dependable Colm Meaney (Gene) and Michael Gambon (Eddie Temple). Sienna Miller, who plays his love interest, radiates so much warmth and sensuality that it’s not difficult to believe that Craig’s dealer would be distracted by her, even when it becomes clear that next week is not promised for him.
The film also looks great. Though it was shot on the cheap, you wouldn’t know it for a second. The compositions in every scene are superb and everything has a cold, barren, metallic feel to it that perfectly suits the tone of the movie. This isn’t the London you are used to seeing. This is a place without history, without culture, without values. It’s a bleak and soulless world. There’s nothing comfortable about it.
What impressed me most about Layer Cake however, was not the tragic arc of the story, nor the performances, or the cinematography. It was the fact that the film didn’t make mistakes. There were no unnecessary scenes, no comic relief that didn’t emerge organically out of the material, no attempts to appease the audience or make them feel better about what they were watching. The soundtrack doesn’t provide easy emotional cues but picks its spots and nails them, then fades back and lets us draw our own conclusions about what we see. The romantic subplot that develops doesn’t seem like an attempt to engage those put off by the rough stuff. It’s a vital part of the story, even if we don’t realize it at first. The violence is plentiful, but relatively bloodless. It’s cold and businesslike, not passionate. Just like the characters engaged in it.
Layer Cake is just a flat out solid film. It’s near perfect in its execution and everything in the story is presented with logic. Backed by a career defining performance from Daniel Craig, a fantastic supporting cast, incredibly shot photography, and Matthew Vaughn’s ability to balance it all out, you got yourself a must watch movie.