Real-life brothers Matěj and Kryštof Hádek play a pair of down-and-out, small-town siblings whose relationship is tenuous at best in Kobry a užovky (English title: The Snake Brothers), a startling realist drama from director Jan Prušinovský with a wicked comedic streak.
Prušinovský previously made Okresní přebor, the immensely popular football-centered TV series that became one of the country’s highest-grossing films in 2012. Kobry a užovky, scripted by newcomer Jaroslav Žváček, couldn’t be much more different in conception, but the director displays a similarly rough-hewn feel for the material that makes it soar.
The opening sequence immediately sets the tone for the upcoming movie, as the violet-haired Cobra (Kryštof Hádek) – drugged-out of his mind but singularly intent on his goal – makes his way down a small village street wheeling a cart with a pair of bolt cutters strapped to his back. It’s the middle of the day, in broad daylight, and there’s no question about what Cobra is about to do; he goes about his task with an animalistic sensibility even as a neighbor incredulously watches on.
Matěj Hádek, last seen as the lone bright spot in the otherwise interminable Pohádkář, is Cobra’s brother, Viper, who gets the call when things get out of hand at a local bar. There’s no love lost between the two, and Viper does the minimum to clean up his brother’s mess while making no attempt to interact with him on a familial level.
The level-headed Viper gets the bulk of the screen time here, with Matěj Hadek’s assured performance providing something of a sympathetic lead. Viper’s attempts to build a successful business after losing his factory job – he opens a clothing store with the initial help of old classmate Ládík (David Máj) – form the basis of Kobry a užovky’s story.
Still, it’s Kryštof Hádek’s Cobra that steals the movie. Unrepentantly wigged-out for the duration, with no attempts to rehabilitate the character, this role lets the actor cut loose and Hádek seizes the opportunity. The younger Hádek has seen mostly smaller roles in films like Všiváci and Signál, but here’s one that really lets him shine.
Žváček’s script is careful to humanize if not sympathize with Cobra: one of the film’s more memorable scenes depicts his internal struggle over whether to steal his grandmother’s television, with the knowledge that his ultimate decision is almost pre-ordained. Another highlight: Cobra confidently marching towards the video slots in his local bar while BSP’s Země vzdálená plays over the soundtrack.
Halfway through the lackadaisical but fully-enjoyable film, a plot begins to develop, involving Viper’s friend Tomáš (Jan Hájek) and his wife Zůza (Lucie Žáčková) and an incident involving Cobra. But Kobry a užovky is at its weakest when shifting focus away from careful character observation and towards plot-centric storytelling.
Director Prušinovský deftly balances aspects of drama and comedy while never losing control of tone, a feat unmanaged by many of his more-established colleagues in the modern Czech “dramedy,” a genre that has dominated the local contemporary landscape. Its gritty realism captures an accurate snapshot of life in small-town Czech Republic while carefully satirizing its inhabitants (compare to Díra u Hanušovic).
Kobry a užovky works best as a dry comedy, and includes numerous laugh-out-loud moments of deadpan humor; generating the most laughs are a nicotine-stained mother played by Jana Šulcová, and a barely-conscious grandmother (90-year-old Věra Kubánková).
Naturalistic cinematography by Robert Sedláček’s cameraman Petr Koblovský (Rodina je základ státu, Největší z Čechů) adds to the small-town atmosphere; a number of classic and contemporary local pop hits dot the soundtrack and add to the indelible Czech Republic vibe.
Only the ending here disappoints: as plot threads tie themselves up in an overly-convenient fashion, hard questions find easy answers and we lose sight of the characters that made the film so interesting. By its conclusion, Kobry a užovky has lost much of the edge that made the rest of the film so effective. Until then, however, it’s a hoot that will appeal most to those with at least some basic knowledge of life in the Czech Republic.