It was a dark and slimy film--and yet, as it wound its way slowly into the third hour, it undeniably lit people up. Looking around the movie house, you could see instant-message screens glowing everywhere, as a bored preview audience distracted itself from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.
To be rained on incessantly; to be chained and flogged; to be slapped in the face with tentacles, spewed with mucous, drowned in murk, subjected to an endless booming racket and repeatedly tortured, gerbil-like, upon different versions of the medieval wheel: These are only some of the imaginative pleasures for which the Walt Disney Company now expects you to pay. And because the sadistic merchant wields corporate power at its most omnipresent, submissive millions are even now presenting themselves to be "entertained," with nothing but cellphone flashes to signal a feeble and belated resistance.
Two and a half hours of cinematic slog, lightened for only a second or two by Johnny Depp's mugging or Keira Knightley's kisser; and at the end, poor sucker, you learn there is no end, but only a come-on for Pirates of the Caribbean 3! Had this insult to the nervous system been inflicted in darkest February, when studios clear their shelves, you might have understood the affront, if not excused it. But Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is a summer blockbuster, and so it gives frightening evidence that its studio felt no need to do better.
That's why the rest of this column will deal with less profitable films--ones that are so small they almost didn't get produced, or had to be made by French people.
First presented on stage at the start of the Reagan era, when it was arguably least welcome and most needed, David Mamet's Edmond is probably as close as we'll get to an American Woyzeck. Composed as a sequence of short, stark dialogues, it is the fable of an exemplary figure sucked down into his fated hell. This being America, the character is not a wretched soldier but a horny middle-aged salaryman, fatally ignorant of the world that lies beyond his white skin and business suit; the destiny is as much chosen as ordained, and hell, when it's finally reached, has a warm, redemptive glow. That said, Edmond is one efficient punch in the gut. Now it is also a perfectly efficient, breathtaking movie.
A pause for disclosure: I worked with David Mamet years ago and am proud to have been a member of the theater company once run by Stuart Gordon, director and co-producer of this new Edmond. So if you want a review by someone who has never been touched by talented people, please consult another critic. This one says that every moment of Edmond is extraordinary.
Gordon feels this material. His camera direction has the swift, spare expressiveness of classic Hollywood noir, and none of the mannerism of today's imitations. His casting is impeccable, down to the smallest role. And in his support of the actors, he never falters--especially with William H. Macy, who finds, and lives, every nuance of the daunting title role.
It's a truism that actors must accommodate themselves to the instruments they were given; and Macy, as has been evident since Fargo, was born to play men with rumpled, desperate faces. But watch how he exceeds himself here, as he spews platitudes (sometimes wincing as he hears them), tries on and abandons a grin that's no longer boyish, masks his sexual shame (and so exposes it) with a show of self-righteous shrewdness and, at the dreadful center of the story, bursts with joyful wisdom, or its manic counterfeit. He's high on life. He's just stomped a black man half to death, and yelled really bad words while doing it.
You may wonder where's the pleasure in such a movie--especially when you learn that I haven't told the half of it. Well, that's the pleasure: Edmond doesn't stop halfway but tells all. There's exhilaration in seeing to the bottom of things you ordinarily don't even want to look at. And in this tightly budgeted film, there's also a paradoxical exhilaration of scale. Bursting out of the logistical constraints is a tremendous performance, given in the service of a huge and terrible theme.