Wednesday, September 16, 2009


In a recent, idle moment, I bought two of David Mamet's movies on DVD: Heist and Spartan. I watched Spartan this afternoon. I think it may be a perfect film.

Val Kilmer's character, who I choose to believe is nameless because two people call him "John" and three people call him "Bobby," and he tells one of them that his name's not Bobby, is a machine. He does what he's told and never asks why. It's not until he begins to ask that the movie becomes what it is, which is an stoic, fatalistic (to call it cynical would be to imply a facile wised-upness that Mamet avoids) examination of American politics and the people who succeed in that field. Everyone has a job to do. Many are employed cleaning up messes made by a few.

The movie, too, is a machine. Everything clicks into place and there is no wasted motion. Every character has a purpose within the narrative. This person leads Kilmer to that one. This person assists that one. But no one, and not a word of dialogue, is superfluous. Things are repeated for emphasis, and there is a monologue which is necessary to ratchet up the emotional impact, but there is almost no expository dialogue in Spartan. The object at the center of the narrative is a young woman in this case, but it/she could just as easily have been the silver case in Ronin, the formula in The Spanish Prisoner, the gold in Heist, the Glengarry get the idea. Mamet offers you a glimpse of what people want, then makes/lets you watch them chase it. But along the way he offers no surplus information. We never even know who the girl's father is in Spartan; all we know is that he is a politician up for re-election.

I gave this post the title I did because I believe this is Mamet's most spartan film. Heist has lots of fun, funny flourishes in its dialogue, and Glengarry Glen Ross is practically an opera, it's all vocalists trading arias. Homicide is a class in history, religion and philosophy disguised as a mystery. But the poster for Spartan encapsulates the movie perfectly: It depicts a woman's expressionless face, in gray, with a red band containing Val Kilmer's image across her eyes. The woman is a moving object; Kilmer is a moving object intent on colliding with her.

After I watched the movie, I went to Wikipedia and counted up Val Kilmer's movies. I've seen 24 of them. I think I may have seen more movies with Val Kilmer in them than films with any other actor in them, and that includes Kevin Bacon. I think Val Kilmer may be my favorite actor. He is a very quiet performer; he seems to stare out at the world and miss nothing, even when his character is a junkie, or a drunk, or both. I read this profile of him (by Chuck Klosterman, a writer with whom I have had one enjoyable phone conversation but whose writing frequently falls apart upon even cursory examination) nearly five years ago now, and it's stuck in my head ever since. There are no interesting quotes from Kilmer in it. Even the bit about being able to understand what it's like to have been in Vietnam or to have killed someone better than someone who actually had those experiences just kind of drifts down to the tabletop, because he says it with such calm insistence, seemingly not caring if you believe him or not but at the same time utterly confident that you will. That aura comes through in his portrayal of Doc Holliday in Tombstone, a movie that (before I broke down and bought it on DVD) was one of my "from here to the end" movies; if I caught it on cable, especially in its first half, I would almost always stop and watch it from that point to the end. It comes through in his work in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, as Elvis in True Romance, as Philip of Macedon in Alexander, even as Montgomery in The Island Of Dr. Moreau. I can't think of another American actor who radiates that kind of calm; the closest equivalent to Kilmer might be Mads Mikkelsen.

Anyway, revisit Spartan sometime. It came and went with absolutely zero fanfare, just one more Mamet project that very calmly demonstrated to anyone watching exactly how you make a movie.

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