Monday, April 6, 2009

"house of games" movie review

"house of games" was the second of two unsettling films i watched on t.v. this weekend. the first was the singularly creepy "auto focus" that stared greg kinnear as bob crane of hogans heroes. "house of games" was on ifc and "autofocus" on sundance - a pair of great cable channels for any and all film fans out there. "house of games" was directed david mamet - and he cast his wife, lindsay crouse, as the central character, psychiatrist margaret ford, and his friend, joe mantegna, as mike, the con man.

the film is a dark psychological thriller. it's overarching theme is the duality played out by trust and deception. mantegna's character is a confidence man, getting your trust only to use it in the eventual deception. the film's nighttime shots of bars and street views could easily have been lifted from an ed hopper painting. those exteriors really set the mood. crouse is drawn into this seedy - albeit professionally polished - underworld of swindlers when one of her "patients" reveals in therapy that he fears his legs will be broken because he owes a bookie $25,000.

it takes a psychiatrist of incredible arrogance - or naivete' - to march down to a rundown bar to confront the bookie on behalf of a pathetic gambler. we must make this leap of faith because her arrogance sets in motion a string of bizarre events that keep us glued to the screen. mantegna must have been expecting her, must have read her highly successful book, and must have baited the trap with the frantic gambler with no way out. he lulls her into a rigged card game - with the expectation of fleecing her of $20,000. the con is busted when crouse realized the gun pointed at her was a water pistol! this scene could have been lifted out of the "sting" if it hadn't been meant to be dramatic.

this phony card game business - teetering on the edge of ridiculousness - may, on one level, have been designed to lure crouse further into the trap to be sprung by the con men. mantegna and his crew nonchalantly break up the game and say, "no hard feeling, it's not personal, only business." but crouse, as expected, returns to mantegna and wants him to show her "how it's done" so she can write a book about the experience. once again, it's either naivete' or arrogance, but crouse really believes she can stay ahead of a expert con man - and not fall into a trap (or for mantegna)!

this sets her up for an even bigger deception - which i won't spoil here. it's only a simple twist of fate that she makes the connection between her "patient" and - and the con, and sets in motion a chilling endgame. that ending is as unexpected as it is utterly improbable - but it makes for a morally ambiguous close to the film. the conclusion to the relentless string of deceptions and broken confidences is, alone, worth watching the film.

one very interesting and fascinating twist - the language employed in the dialogue. mamet takes everyday words spoken almost with a stilted, halting delivery - or alternating with rapid fire declamations - gives "house of games" yet another layer of complexity. watch the words ;D

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