Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
USA, 1991. Pressman Film, Cinehaus. Screenplay by David Mamet. Cinematography by Roger Deakins. Produced by Michael Hausman, Edward R. Pressman. Music by Alaric Jans. Production Design by Michael Merritt. Costume Design by Nan Cibula. Film Editing by Barbara Tulliver.
Joe Mantegna plays a detective in an unspecified city (it’s shot in Baltimore) who interferes with a hostage situation that turns out to be the scene of a murder. The victim is an elderly Jewish woman who runs a corner candy store and whose family members say they believe they are the victims of anti-Semitic attacks that are still a dangerous threat to their safety. Passing this off as paranoia, Mantegna investigates clues related to the killing and falls down a fascinating rabbit hole of mysterious characters and situations that move spontaneously from one to the next, leading him back to his own personal challenges with his Jewish identity. Writer-director David Mamet creates an intoxicating, enigmatic atmosphere in which our hero begins to understand that an invisible web connecting people in good and bad way lies beyond what’s visible in the urban jungle that he is supposed to be protecting. The overly theatrical dialogue, which takes the repetition of harsh expressions in Mamet’s plays and puts it on screen, feels theatrical and artificial but, in a story this inventive, is one of the film’s many artificialities that feel creative rather than phony. Where it falters is in the final act, where the character experiences a kind of spiritual shift that isn’t convincing; Mantegna, who along with costar William H. Macy, is one of the best known interpreters of the great writer’s work, has the grit and charisma for the part but, being a time-travelling character actor from Warner Bros. gangster movies of the thirties, doesn’t have the depth to sell the ending, and Mamet undercooks that part of the script as if he had written himself into a corner and didn’t know how to get out. If the character was struggling with his soul before this point we had no idea about it, Mantegna just gives everyone around him a quizzical stare, but the film’s better qualities remain on the mind even if this deeply absorbing experience leaves its audience confused at the end.
The Criterion Collection: #486
Cannes Film Festival: In Competition