Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Redbelt: My Guilty Pleasure of 2008

Written and directed by David Mamet, Redbelt is a wickedly awesome and surprisingly moving film. I call it my guilty pleasure of 2008 because the convoluted plot barely passes a cursory examination on first viewing and tends to completely self-destruct after repeated viewings. The ending, in terms of verisimilitude, really pushes the envelope of willing suspension of disbelief. Nevertheless, I find this an entertaining-as-all-hell movie, held together by a perfect performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor, by logic-defying plot twists that don't give you time to consider their logic-defyingness, and most importantly, by heart.

Taken within the context of Mamet's oeuvre, Redbelt is both standard fare and somewhat of an oddity. All the Mamet trademarks are present: insanely twisted storyline; dramatic reversals of fortune; shady characters; shadier characters; even shadier characters; double-crosses; an almost amoral universe; distinct, undeniably Mametean dialogue that calls attention to itself all the way; and, of course, the con. There's always a con in Mamet's world, something going on underneath what you think is going on, and oftentimes something going on underneath that too. Layer upon layer of fiction gets stripped away as the story unfolds, until you are left with a stark revelation at the end: man is a conniving, nasty beast. Only this time out, Mamet issues an addendum: but some men are not.

What separates RB from Mamet's other films like The Spanish Prisoner, Spartan, Heist, and House of Games, and even more so Glengarry Glen Ross, is the story has soul. There is a message of perseverance, of finding peace, of adhering to one's moral code, in an otherwise malevolent world. It is--dare I say it--an inspiring film.

Unlike his other films, Mamet has given us a lead we can truly sympathize with this time around. His other films, as intelligent and fun as they are, often come off as emotionally void. Or rather, the only emotions in the Mamet universe outside of Redbelt are anger, frustration, estrangement, alienation, and lust. I cheered for the main character in The Spanish Prisoner not because I identified with him, but because he was just a decent, hard-working fellow that was getting screwed by con men. I rooted for Gene Hackman in Heist because he was Gene Hackman, and really for no reason other than that.

But Mike Terry, hero of this story, is different from every other previous Mamet protagonist.

Early in the film, Terry, played by Ejiofor, states, "There is an always escape." No matter how bad things get, you can always find a way out, you can always triumph. He's a man that believes in something. He's not challenged by evil forces "just because," as is the case in most of Mamet's other films. Rather, he's challenged because of who he is. His system of values and that fundamental belief are tested throughout the movie, with the stakes getting inevitably higher with each challenge. As Terry explains to a new student in the middle of the film, just before EVERYTHING falls apart, "There is no situation you cannot escape from. There is no situation you cannot turn to your advantage."

Is it possible to live an honorable life in 2008? Yes, Mike Terry says. No, says everybody else. And Redbelt pits these two philosophies against one another. Many people were thrown by the ads into thinking this is a martial arts movie. It is not. It is a cleverly-disguised, neo-noirish spin on the samurai film. It's a refreshing dose of optimism, found in the least likely of places: a David Mamet movie.

Ejiofor almost completely carries this film. Mamet's dialogue either makes or breaks an actor (and makes or breaks a story for an audience), and when delivered poorly, the language calls attention to itself and its artificiality. Ejiofor, however, handles it marvelously, alternatively spouting off Yoda-like aphorisms while managing the gritty "hyper-realism" of Mamet's syntax, with its non-sequiturs and repetitions on repetitions. I can't picture anyone else playing Mike Terry, meaning Ejiofor inhabited the role and made it truly his own.

All that being said, I will issue this caveat: this film is polarizing, as nearly every Mamet movie tends to be. People either love it or hate it, and I'm starting to wonder whether Mamet likes his stories to be that way. I fall into the love it camp, but even I'm willing to admit the film is not perfect, nowhere near it, in fact. The ending is, in the most literal sense of the word, unbelievable. The con itself, perhaps the centerpiece of every Mamet story, is logically baffling. It is impossible to tell when the con men decided to start conning their mark, in this case, Mike Terry, or why they chose to go about it the way they did. Surely, there was an easier way.

But for me, Redbelt works as a Mamet story, a samurai film, and as a fight movie. It's my guilty pleasure of 2008, unless I see something else that tops it in the next eight days.

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