David Mamet's screen adaptation of his 1982 one-act play Edmond is, by design, nasty, brutish, and short. Stuart Gordon, known for his work in the horror genre, directs this urban nightmare of an easy mark frustrated at every turn by a pitiless capitalist system. And in a performance that can stand against any in his career, Mamet vet William H. Macy plays Edmond Burke, a businessman who looks around at his life and, disappointed, begins to act out.
At the story's outset, the humorously square Edmond consults a tarot reader (Frances Bay), who tells him, "You are not where you belong." Taking the fortune at face value, Edmond concludes he "can't live this kind of life," impulsively ditches his wife (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet's wife, in a sizzling cameo) and heads into the night. The sad sack bristles at the manipulations of a three-card monte artist and a pawnbroker, but predictably acquiesces. The film's comic height may be Edmond's affronted reaction to not receiving change from a peep show.
Edmond builds up the illusion of his own power by making demands and, eventually enforcing them. These turns can be comical or violent, but rather than empowerment, they signal a downward spiral toward more intense rage, racism, misogyny, and existential depression. Edmond insists upon moral standards from everyone he encounters, but most damningly, he can't trust his own values and sense of self to remain firm. Edmond may abandon conventional notions of civility and political correctness in his search for pure truth, but he also resorts to lies.
Everyone around the unreliable hero waxes philosophical about the nature of suffering. In a delicious duet with Macy, Joe Mantegna (yet another Mamet stalwart) sells us a chatty barfly at ease with letting humanity off the hook: "We're bred to do the things that we do." A hardened criminal (Bokeem Woodbine) reflects, "Maybe we're the animals."
No one in Edmond represents humanity well, but the authorial fervor by which the women (represented by Julia Stiles, Bai Ling, and Denise Richards) dish it out and take it demonstrates why Mamet has often been charged with misogyny. On the other hand, misogyny is also significant as a character flaw, a theme and, alongside racism and homophobia, an expression of Edmond's fears.
The stew of certainties and confusions leads Edmond to chew over his own philosophical response. He stops into a Baptist church but, uniquely rejected, decides God "may love the weak, but he protects the strong." Later in his existential descent, he openly asks, "You think there's a hell? You think we're there?"
By framing a hopeless culture where quitting is not an option, Mamet skewers conventional wisdom by suggesting we sign the social contract too readily: it's easier to accept manners and laws than to live with self-motivated integrity. "I've learned my lesson," Edmond tells a cop, but he hasn't. Not yet. He's much closer when he admits, "Every fear hides a wish." Each encounter for this Everyman constitutes a test of character; by facing his fears, Edmond wins his fondest desires: to live for more than "two minutes out of the year" and to use up his fears and prejudices by facing them.
Edmond finds Mamet at his most raw. In its ostensible dramatic context (as opposed to a genre-film context), the film's shock value is perhaps unparalleled. But Edmond functions as drama because shock crosses through sensationalism to a kind of purity in the character study of a man in desperate need of repair. Though Edmond is less a polished play than a ragged primal scream from Mamet, Gordon's 83-minute film will leave you ravaged and contemplative about the scarcely tamed dark side of human nature in the world we've built for ourselves.
[For Groucho's interview with William H. Macy and Stuart Gordon, click here.]