Feb 24, 2021


Michael Corrente's adaptation of David Mamet's 1975 play of the same name was released four years following James Foley's own searing Mamet adaptation, Glengarry Glen Ross, which likely remains the quintessential Mamet play realized for the screen. Though the two films retain quite a bit of similarity, mostly having to do with the state of the human soul and relationship when corrupted by the poisons of capitalistic schemes - either unethical or downright illegal - American Buffalo is a much more intimate affair, relegating the number of characters to a mere three (and not just on-screen at one time, but in the entire film). And it wouldn't really be unfair to these characters to describe them as scumbags, because they kind of are. Donny (Denis Franz) is the pawnshop owner with the "brains" to concoct the potential robbery, Bobby (Sean Nelson) is his quite young but willing accomplice, and Teach (Dustin Hoffman) is the scummiest of them all, inserting himself into the scheme at the expense of Bobby's involvement. The plot is a simple one: to rob a recent customer of Donny's pawn shop - of the rare American buffalo nickel, and the dozens of other rare coins Donny assumes the man to have in his possession.

While it's only felt like somewhat recently - perhaps with the advent of The Sopranos - that never before have there been so many prominent films and television shows told from the point of view from the quite flawed and even villainous main character, this has actually been a prominent device in storytelling devices for a while now, going back as far as The Godfather and likely even farther back into cinema history. Now more than ever it seems that audiences are rooting for the bad guy, or the bad motorcycle club, or the bad meth-cooker/chemistry teacher - people that our consciences tell us are not to be sympathized with, but yet with whom we do so, anyway. What the human mind does with law-breaking characters is reset our expectations. To make those characters relatable, we reevaluate human morality; because it's the human brain's instinct to compartmentalize, we compare ourselves against those being presented to us, and we all draw our own lines as to which of these characters goes too far. These three men - well, two men and one boy - are all complicit in their hackneyed plot to rob a man of at least one rare coin (the value of which doesn't seem to exceed $500 - a lousy goal when split among three participants), as well as many other theoretical coins that Donny can't even confirm the man possesses. These men all choose to take part in illegality, and all for their own reasons - Donny out of a sense of retribution, Bobby out of legitimate need, and Teach out of pride and misplaced anger. On the surface, all three men are guilty, but it's the strength of Mamet's script and Corrente's direction that the audience comes away feeling a certain way about each of our heist men. Donny may be the mastermind, and the fact that he's soliciting the involvement of a young kid too stupid to think for himself initially paints him as the worst of the three, but the more Teach manipulates Donny in a bevy of ways - and all, of course, which benefit Teach to some degree -  and after every one of his profane tirades erupts within the small tinny walls of Donny's pawnshop, our dislike for Donny decreases, and it's all placed on Teach. But then as we're approaching the third act and the two men being throwing shadows of doubt on Bobby's behavior, as he comes and goes to the pawnshop, bringing with him suspicious behavior and eyes that stay firmly planted on the floor, that audience perception changes sides yet again. Each of the men we'd previously condemned in our minds suddenly had our sympathy and our support. ("Oh no, they'll be caught!" etc.) Yes, all three are complicit, but it's their personalities that determine which character gets our sympathies, and which do not, and that's a pretty ballsy manipulation to commit upon your audience.

Thomas Newman's funkified and quirky score is used only very intermittently, and with the majority of the film taking place inside an old pawn shop, the audio environment is very limited and very basic. This is to be completely understood, given that American Buffalo is essentially a story written for the stage that happens to be before cameras. Probably the best use of scripted dialogue comes during the third act in which the dynamic between our characters change. The script starts off rapid fire between Donny and Teach, the latter who spits a record number of dialogue, peppered with all kinds of colorful 'fuck' uses, before the audience can even tell where the plot is headed. But once an ugly confrontation occurs, the dialogue slows, slooows, sloooows down, almost painstakingly so, instead of their rambunctious dialogue filling the silence, it's the oncoming thunderstorm soaking the entire world outside. It's in the long silences between our character's exchanges that the thunder and rain becomes increasingly prominent, and it sounds subtly fantastic.

David Mamet is an interesting and quirky individual, and both of those straits show through in his writing. If you've seen at least one of his plays or subsequent film adaptations, his style and his prose will always be recognizable. His involvement in some more higher-profile films might come as a surprise to those who assumed the man always stayed under the radar - (He wrote The Edge! Yeah, the killer bear movie!) - but there is no mistaking a David Mamet screenplay. He's one of the most unique and talented voices working today (though he would tell you there is no such thing as talent - only perseverance); he's uncompromising, furious, and both fascinated by and disgusted with the human condition. American Buffalo is a David Mamet vehicle through and through.

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