I'm too lazy to summarize or capsulize the review I wrote for my website of Gangster No. 1
, so I'll just reprint it in its entirety so that it can be commented on in blog form (since I know you guys can just go to the site to read it if you want):
The most important moment in Paul McGuigan's sublimely ugly Greek-tragedy-masked-as-British-gangster-film comes when the unnamed lead character, played with crackling amoral intensity by Paul Bettany, is caught admiring David Thewlis's initialed tie clip. Thewlis hands it over as an ostensible gift (but it's really the mark of Thewlis's superior class, wealth, and identity serving only to mock Bettany), and Bettany places it right over his heart -- a signifier that not only does Bettany secretly love Thewlis, but he will forever define himself through the initials of his mentor.
The rest of the film stems from this theme of a man who doesn't know who he is, loving what he doesn't and can't have, getting revenge for his lot in life, yet failing to fill the gaping hole in his soul left by a lack of values and identity. That the film has the superficial structure of a Long Good Friday, Snatch, Sexy Beast-type gangster flick might fool a lot of people into thinking the movie is about crime or violence. It isn't. It's about how desire creates isolation and greed is self-destructive. The stuff of Shakespeare.
There's an ultra-violent set-piece in the film that caused some walk-outs at my screening, but it's distancing enough (thanks to a crafty tone well established by the director, production designer, and gritty, skilled DP) not to really be offensive. The idea is more to have a theatrical portrayal of the point in a man's life where his behavior is in the most direct contrast to what he should be doing to get what he wants; therefore, he's at his most self-destructive and so the mood should be at its most violent. Bettany handles it assuredly and always with a wink of good humor.
Add in Malcolm McDowell's too-good-to-be-true voice-over (his performance is 75% sound, 25% visual third act resolution) and you have a sensational character with two great actors, terrific and subtle supporting jobs by Thewlis and Saffron Burrows, and a wonderful sense of composition in that Bettany is often placed in the center of an empty and wide frame (as opposed to more conventional "thirds" framing the way the other actors are) to underscore both his stature and his isolation. He's as strong and commanding as he is lonely.
The problems I have with the film come with the wandering narrative (though plot is not the order of the day with this film) and the wish that something even more exciting could have been done with the third act -- the trip through the '80s and '90s feels rushed and undercooked, and while the final monologue and scene with Thewlis is beautifully performed and written, it still feels stagey and wanting a more visceral climax. However, it has improved in my mind since I walked out.
Additional note: I had the excellent fortune of seeing Malcolm McDowell speak after the screening, and he's a hilarious, self-effacing, down-to-earth, intelligent guy. He had a lot of cool things to say about the film (though my one complaint is that he denied what I thought were obvious homoerotic undertones in his character) and the art of acting and cinema in general. Wish his career had survived better post-Kubrick.