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Speaking in Tongues

Mamet's clipped chatter captures the con artists' terrain of "The Spanish Prisoner"; the Irish accents of the brilliant "Butcher Boy" nearly foil comprehension.

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At the beginning of David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner, I laughed out loud. Not at the movie (which is pretty good) but at myself, for I had once written of Mamet’s dialogue (at the time of the stage version of Glengarry Glen Ross) that it represented a new form of naturalism in the theater -- an authentic rendering of everyday American speech. In Glengarry, the characters talk in rude fragments, in charged broken phrases that reveal some hostile intent that can never be made entirely explicit. I was excited: Here was an invention equal in freshness to the delirious language of Scorsese’s hoods in Mean Streets! Well, I still love Glengarry Glen Ross, but my initial impression of Mamet’s language now seems entirely naïve. Whatever the accuracy of Mamet’s ear back in the early eighties, that ear has long been shut against the world. What Mamet writes now, precisely, is Mametese. His dialogue is a severe, even extreme, stylization of speech that serves to express his barbed, paranoid view of reality; and it’s also the kind of speech -- hooded, treacherous, withholding yet bristling -- that gets him from one point to another in his closed-off plots, which have the form of very elaborate, very nasty puzzles. However deeply Mamet goes into filmmaking (The Spanish Prisoner is the fifth film he has directed), he remains a man of the theater, a director indifferent to the free-and-easy inclusiveness that is the glory of the movies.

In The Spanish Prisoner, Campbell Scott, of the serious brow and the serious cleft, plays a young inventor, Joe Ross, a self-made man uneasy among the rich and powerful, yet secretly eager to join their ranks. What it is that Joe Ross has invented we never find out -- “the process,” it is called, some sort of technological masterpiece that will earn untold millions for Joe’s company. At the beginning of the movie, Joe is asked by his boss (Ben Gazzara) to make a presentation to the company’s major investors, who have gathered at a posh Caribbean island resort. But Joe feels he’s possibly being used -- his invention exploited without proper compensation. Some sort of shadowy international businessman (Steve Martin) shows up at the resort and addresses Joe in a way that immediately tests his integrity; he passes the test and is flattered by the businessman’s interest. Steve Martin’s antagonistic manner (he always seems to be sizing everyone up) turns out to be perfectly suited to Mamet’s notion of how the world works. Martin gives a smooth, cool, perfect performance in Mametese. He plays a tough man, friendly but tricky, who doesn’t give a compliment easily. The trap has been set.

Mamet keeps the settings simple, breeding mistrust out of the flat walls and corporate colors. He concentrates on dialogue and character, and this movie is warmer, and much closer to psychological realism, than the weirdly schematic House of Games. Campbell Scott is tight, wary, proud; he’s not an exciting actor, but he’s good for Joe, who places a high value on integrity and longs for respect. Scott gives him just enough hunger around the edges of his pride to suggest why he might be a perfect mark. But Mamet has trouble with woman characters, and he has made his wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, quite extraordinarily dislikable -- intrusive, insinuating -- as a secretary who claims to be Joe’s ally. The secretary should be an ambiguous presence, but instead we are shouting at Joe not to trust her from her first appearance.

Why is David Mamet obsessed with con artists? Is he afraid that someone might be smarter than he is, or more cunning? Mamet wants to stay ahead of the game. The con artist may be the kind of artist he instinctively respects -- he creates a completely controlled scenario; he turns cruelty into narrative, conjuring an alternate reality for his mark. But Mamet himself would like to be a real artist in movies, and he’s about halfway there. As Joe gets more and more isolated, Mamet takes us deeper into fear than he ever has in the past, and that’s an achievement. Hitchcock is the model here -- the man who made great films about ordinary people getting in way, way over their heads. But to become Hitchcock’s equivalent, Mamet has to learn to trust the camera more than he does; he has to stop trying to control everything with language; he has to let loose a little and just give in to the fluency, the ease, the free-flowing pleasure of making a movie.

At his best, Neil Jordan, the Irish writer-director who earlier made such wonderful films as Mona Lisa and The Crying Game, pushes realism into dreams -- sometimes bad dreams -- without quite losing the bedrock of actuality from which dreams are sprung. In The Butcher Boy, Jordan stays close to the most extreme fancies of his lead character -- a little boy fighting off misery. When the action of The Butcher Boy turns out to be all too literally true, we are shocked in a way that we rarely are at the movies.

Jordan’s hero, the 12-year-old Francie Brady (Eamonn Owens), grows up in a small Irish town with a drunkard and liar for a father and a beautiful madwoman for a mother. The boy receives no guidance at all -- just the fervent guilty nonsense of his dad (Stephen Rea), a forlorn trumpet player who never finishes a tune. Yet there’s wild gaiety in Butcher Boy. The movie is based on a novel by Patrick McCabe and records a moment, in the early sixties, when Ireland was irradiated with the nuclear energy of American popular culture -- TV and old movies, and the glittering American Irish, the Kennedys, conquering the New World. Francie and his close friend Joe put together a mental life that is part fantasy, part role-playing. They live by their games and oaths, yet Francie is not recessive; on the contrary, he’s an irrepressible entertainer, a put-on artist surging in and out of rooms like a whirlwind. Little Eamonn Owens has a face like a big piece of pie -- luscious red hair, avid eyes -- and a mouth that won’t stop, and the movie built around him goes like a fever. Jordan’s direction is incisive and at times electrifying, with sudden outbreaks of violence -- farce yielding to terror -- that should warn us something bad is coming. Part of the ominousness is produced by sheer incomprehension. Much of the dialogue is delivered in the deep accents of County Monaghan, near the border with Northern Ireland, where Patrick McCabe grew up and Jordan shot the exteriors. I understood no more than half of what Eamonn Owens says, so I find myself in an embarrassing position: I think this is a great movie, but I’m not sure.


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