Lock, Stock, and Why Structure Isn’t Everything

I was told once by a friend that if I were an abstract concept, I would be structure. This, apparently, because I go on about how important structure is in works of art. And it is.

A few days ago, just for fun, I watched Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels again. I had seen it when it came out in the late nineties, and have probably watched once since then. (I would like to mention that I went to see it with three really good buddies at the time, and we vowed to recreate the drinking scene two thirds of the way in. It has yet to happen, but I’m still hopeful.) What I remembered about it, even from the first viewing, was how good its structure was. By which I mean two things: everything is accounted for, and the timing is impeccable. (The timing of everything is what gives this film its ‘fun’ aspect, similar to Charlie Chaplin comedies.)

The very brief rundown of the structure goes something like this. There’s the four boys, Harry and Barry, Big and Little Chris, the Northern duo, Dog’s gang, the weed growing scientists, Rory’s gang, and Nick the Greek. Each group thinks at any given time that it has a single relationship with any of the other groups, and doesn’t realize how interconnected they all are. Pull on a string that connects any two groups and they are all affected. Not only that, but things that seem to happen out of nowhere in the beginning, such as Gloria being carried into the weed lair, the immolated man running out of a bar, the conversation Plank has with his boss Dog at the beginning, they all tie in and explain various aspects of how the action plays out. And each aspect, each connection between the groups, each development is necessary for the ending we get. It’s like a game of cat’s cradle, all the various overlapping and intersecting strings at once resolve into nothing. Just like that. That’s good structure.

So then, what is missing from the film? Well, women for one. I don’t mean to say that every film has to have a leading lady or anything like that, but the lack of women points to something. All the characters are caricatures. They are summed up in one sentence which we get at the beginning of the movie. What made good gangster films into excellent gangster films (Donnie Brasco, The Godfather), is that we saw these ruthless killers as human, not just there to propel the action. The psychology of the characters (and the viewers) is further stripped down due to the lack of any moral dilemma. Sixteen people die in this film, and everybody else, ruthless gangster or regular Joe, just brushes it off.

Now, I’ve had the soundtrack to this film since it came out. It’s a great playlist of songs. But whereas other films use music to broaden the theme, to add a dimension, to call into question what is going on visually, Lock Stock just reinforces what we already think about what is going on and fills in the gaps between perfectly stylized lines. It is as one dimensional as the monochrome lighting throughout the film. I know it is supposed to paint a picture of a grim, dog eat dog world, in which only the color of money counts, but since we already know that, the lighting is just along for the ride.

On the other hand, what a ride! It’s clever in its use of a messy plot, so that as soon as the viewer forgets about one of the groups, and you will, it surprises you by coming out of left field, usually baring a gun and threatening to kill everything in sight. And as I said, the timing and propulsion of the plot lead to that perfect resolution. Great structure, now if something were only hanging on it.

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