In the myopia of one’s own life, staring down the barrel of whatever salve you use to get through the day, it’s hard to see the ways your life is shaped by the culture and society around you. Sometimes you never see past that barrel. Jan Prusinovský’s The Snake Brothers is a film about that kind of myopia, and one brother’s attempt to find some modicum of success in his middle-age despite the destructive presence of his younger brother and, though he never quite considers it, the cannibalistic nature of his own society and the people surrounding him.
Uzovka (translated as “Grass”), played with a wonderful, sympathetic world-weariness by Matej Hádek, the older brother, is constantly chasing after and minding his little brother, Kobra (Krystof Hádek), a petty criminal and dope addict with a particular talent for mayhem. However, it’s not like Uzovka has his shit together – when not picking up his brother’s pieces, he’s getting drunk and tormenting his best friend, Tomas (Jan Hájek), with constant aspersions about the faithfulness of the latter’s wife, Zuza (Lucie Zácková). Things kick off when, after having lost his job, Uzovka runs into a high school buddy, Ládík (David Máj), who invites him in on a scheme to be a franchisee for a German-based clothes company. Ládík hopes that Uzovka’s half-German parentage, and a smattering of German, will help get them the license, and connects Uzovka with the deal on one condition – he gets to move illegal pharmaceutical product through the store’s inventory. Uzovka agrees, begins to make money for the first time in his life, and finally feels in a stable place. However, Uzovka’s success begins to eat away at Kobra and, his talents combined with Ládík’s pills, disaster is only a few steps away.
What’s interesting about this film, though, is that the inevitable conflicts break out in small, surprisingly intimate betrayals. There’s room for the usual crime-movie flair, with a battalion of dedicated cops or grand assassination scenes, but Snake Brothers largely sidesteps the genre conventions, instead drawing its meat from the difficulty of an untenable familial relationship, the nexus of love, self-protection, and addiction. The use of these relationships lends the film a strong, particular tone, something that seems very Czech in its mixture of heavy dramatic stakes and black comedy, always with a strong, unerring moral weight, which becomes stronger as the conflict deepens, particularly when Uzovka recruits Tomas in a scheme to “punish” Kobra, nearly killing him and embroiling them both in a small-scale attempt to cheat justice.
Where the film falters is largely in its matter-of-course treatment of drug addiction. At one moment, following a fairly momentous but lucrative betrayal, there’s a protracted scene of Kobra in the throes of chemical bliss, which is pretty conventional in a basic kind of way and doesn’t deepen the character much at all. Generally, Kobra hews to some stock traits as film junkies go, being both a petty criminal who can’t be trusted and a sensitive boy who’s too good for this world. The film is too savvy and clear-eyed to be shallow or sentimental in its portrayal of drug-use (I’m looking at you, Rockinrolla), but it still leans a little heavily on convention for my taste. All in all, this is Uzovka’s movie, however, and his more complex characterization is quite satisfying.
The brothers Snake are, each in their own way, a pair of sometimes lovable and sometimes exasperating fuck-ups, whose morass of personal hopes and lost prospects come to stand in for the larger Czech society, perennially caught up in someone else’s war, earning someone else’s money, and dying for someone else’s cause. That the story of these two small-time hoodlums works so well as a cipher for Czech society just as it’s beginning to emerge from the terror of its Soviet bloc past is remarkable in itself, but that their story by itself carries interest, that the small stakes they play in are quite entertaining, is all the better. After all, low-rent gangsters need movies, too, and this stands as a pretty good entry.