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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Director Report Card: Stuart Gordon (2005)

14. Edmond

Any director who has been making horror movies for most of their career, it seems, eventually takes a stab at a more “respectable” genre. Sometimes this goes well, like Cronenberg's slow transition to psychological dramas. Sometimes, you get Wes Craven's “Music of the Heart.” Around 2005, it was announced that Stuart Gordon – maker of low budget horror films – would be directing a film written by David Mamet, one of the most respected writers of the modern age. Of course, those familiar with Gordon's career know he worked with Mamet on-stage at the Organic Theater. Still, filming one of Mamet's plays seemed to be Gordon's long awaited bid to be taken seriously. It sort of worked. “Edmond” received mixed reviews but certainly got people talking about the director again.

Edmond Burke lives an unfulfilling life as a meaningless office drone, married to a woman he no longer loves. One night, he randomly decides to leave his wife. He meets a man in a bar, who says a bunch of racist and sexist things. Frustrated and horny, Edmond heads out to get laid. It's the start of a very long night. He attempts hooking up with several prostitutes but never succeeds. He's beaten and mugged by two black men. After buying a knife, he cuts and beats another attempted black mugger. After bedding a young waitress, Edmond's night takes an even darker turn. Soon, his life is changed forever.

“Edmond” has a lot of things on its mind but one theme seems to emerge above the others. Edmond begins his night by visiting a tarot card reader. The cards reappear throughout the film, usually signaling some change in the story. One card, “The Wheel of Fate,” seems especially significant, appearing during a street-side card game. Fate plays a big role in Edmond's night. Meeting people on the street by chance is the main motivator of the film's plot. As Edmond's journey goes on, he feels more and more like a victim of fate, that life has treated him unfairly. And, to a degree, this is a true. “Edmond” suggests that we could all fall victim to the whims of random chance.

Another main thread of the story is the inability for men and women to truly connect. Gordon cleverly suggests this too with some unobtrusive visual symbolism. At one point, Edmond visits a peepshow. A sheet of glass separates him from the stripper. He repeatedly asks if the glass comes down, if he can touch her. He asks the same questions, unable to pick up on the stripper's obvious hints that full-blown sex isn't on the menu. Later, near the film's end, Edmond is in prison. Now a sheet of glass separates him from his wife. Once again, he attempts to reach out to a woman, clueless that she's disinterest in his words. Naturally, both encounters end in failure. Even as his night of transformation ends, Edmond is unable to connect with the women in his life.

Perfectly cast in the titular role is William H. Macy. Macy has made a career of playing tragi-comic sad sacks. In “Edmond,” he brings a dark edge to this persona. Edmond Burke is like many of the pathetic losers Macy has played. Except the script acknowledges the petty anger and sexual frustration boiling beneath this exterior. Macy emphasizes this bitterness. There's little of the humor he usually provides. Instead, Edmond Burke is an ugly character. Macy's everyman quality still makes the character compelling. You're watching someone who considers themselves normal embarking on the night from hell. As more events happen, Macy gets an opportunity to spit highly verbal monologue, which clearly show his strength as a performer.

As I said earlier, Edmond considers himself a victim of fate. Yet most of the bad luck that befalls him is entirely his fault. During his multiple attempts to sleep with prostitutes, he always tells them their prices are too high. He then attempts to haggle with the hookers, a huge mistake that usually results in him getting thrown out of wherever he is. Later, he bets his last dollar on a street side game of Three Card Monte. Everyone with half a brain knows those games are rigged yet Edmond goes ahead. A seedy pimp leads Edmond into an alley, promising him a girl. Again, common sense would have led anyone else to flee long before Edmond has a knife pulled on him. Ultimately, Edmond's downfall is almost entirely his own fault.

When performed on-stage, “Edmond” has attracted controversy for its use of racial epithets. It happens early and often. The man Edmond meets in the bar casually uses the N-word. Later, while beating the pimp, Edmond unleashes a barrage of racist phrases. This invigorates Edmond and he uses derogatory terms throughout the rest of the film. “Edmond” is definitely criticizing the white macho ego. Yet Edmond's apparent racism isn't even that clear. Later in the film, after totally bottoming out, he attempts to join a black church. It seems Edmond has no strong feelings about anything and only latches onto whatever he's just heard. Because he's a truly empty person.

If Edmond's fury is partially let out on black people, he reserves most of his anger for women. He cruelly dismisses his wife in an early scene. From there, he spends the rest of the movie attempting to get laid. Each time, the prostitute respectfully lays down her price, only for him to dismiss that too. As the story progresses, he becomes more and more violent towards woman. Finally, he murders one.  After that, he yells at a black woman on the subway, practically attempting to rape her. Edmond is a prime example of the masculine id, pissing and attacking everyone who isn't also a white man.

That murder scene is probably the film's key moment. After striking out all night, Edmond successfully picks up a young waitress. Glenna, played by Julia Stiles, is somehow impressed with Edmond's grandstanding and ranting. The two go back to her apartment and make love. Afterwards, he continues to yell at her, belittling her dream of being an actress. As he yells more, knife still in hand, she becomes afraid. He ignores her cries of fear, eventually slashing her throat in anger. Look at that: A grandstanding, power-mad man killing a defenseless woman, unaware of how frightened she is. Gordon shoots the scene like one of his horror movies, using frenzied camera movement to raise the tension before the sudden, shocking explosion of gore.

Despite being a low budget film, “Edmond” packs its supporting cast full of familiar faces. Denise Richards shows up for a small role as the first prostitute Edmond attempts to sleep with, projecting a subtle comedy in the brief scene. Bai Ling next appears as the peepshow stripper and she's flat-out hilarious, maintaining a sexy veneer while repeatedly deflecting Edmond's clueless advances. Mena Survari is maybe the most beautiful sex worker in the film and the one with the least patience for Edmond's foolishness. Patricia Belcher, a familiar face if not name, shows up as the elderly black woman Gordon attacks. Gordon regular Frances Bay has a cameo as the fortune teller. And, of course, Julia Stiles is excellent in her few scenes.

The supporting males also feature some of Gordon's favorite players. Jeffrey Combs has a small part as an effeminate hotel clerk. He's pretty hilarious in his one scene, mincing in disbelief at Macy's antics. George Wendt puts on a surprisingly convincing Russian accent as the shady pawn shop owner who sells Edmond the knife. Joe Mantegna steals his scene as the old racist that starts Edmond's journey. He never undersells how gross his dialogue is but makes it understandable why that would be appealing to some people. Dylan Walsh also appears as a stern police chief that interrogates Edmond. Lastly, Bokeem Woodbine brings a surprisingly amount of respectable to his part in the final act.

That final act ends “Edmond” in a very odd place. After going to prison, Edmond is raped by his cellmate, a large black man. This seems to confirm his worst fears.. At least, until we leap ahead several years. Now, with a shaved head and a bulked up body, Edmond seems more at peace. He has a long, philosophical conversation with his rapist. In the closing minutes of the film, he willingly kisses his bunk mate, curling up with him romantically. Maybe Mamet just wanted to end his shocking play on a shocking image. Or maybe Edmond only finds contentment, and genuine insight into the universe, after abandoning his racism and macho attitudes. Either way, it's certainly a memorable conclusion to take us out on.

"Edmond" is an ugly film. It shows us the darkest side of male entitlement. Considering there's nothing rare about that behavior, I'd excuse anyone who isn't interested in watching the movie. Yet there's a lesson, and even a layer of dark comedy, in watching “Edmond's” bumble towards self-realization. The film is excellently acted. Gordon's direction is strong, as the film has a beautifully noir-ish atmosphere. The film's star-studded cast and flashy Mamet dialogue would attract a lot of attention to Stuart Gordon, briefly revitalizing his career. Though not an easy watch, “Edmond” is one I would recommend. [Grade: B]

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