Movie Review: The Spanish Prisoner

© 1998 Dan Heller

Quick Review: Sort of fun, but essentially a mystery-free suspense thriller.

Synopsis: In David Mamet's most current movie (written and directed), Joe Ross (Campbell Scott), is the inventor of a mysterious "process" (called The Process), that only he understands, but will make so much money, the word isn't in the movie's script. Joe's problem is that his financial relationship with his employer is vague at best, and he gets worried he'll get cut out of its profit potential. On a trip to the Carribean to explain to members of the board some of the details of his formula (which we never see or hear), Joe meets Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), on what appears to be a chance encounter. The course of events from there set the stage for the mysteries that lie ahead.

Review: Mystery movies are supposed to be mysterious, in that you don't know whom to trust, clues are subtle and you usually don't recognize them for what they are until after they are used in some unsuspected way, and the characters are complex enough to not only fool the victim, but the audience. Well, none of these principles applies in The Spanish Prisoner. The twists and turns the plot takes could make some sense if they really lead to something that implied some motivation. "Why do bad people do bad things?" The question is asked a number of times, both literally and figuratively a couple of times in the film. Mamet examines this in his mind in this movie, as well as previous works (film and stage), but he never really addresses it, nor do the character actively or passively attempt to answer the question (or contemplate answers) for themselves. You're given the plot and the characters, and then you're spoon fed clues for easy digestion. In fact, clues are often hammered into your head by constant repetition by the script or by visual cues where you really expect an apology. (The sloppiness of the filmmaking even has the microphone in the frame on several occasions.)

The characters are so obvious that you're thinking that you're the one about to get duped because the main character can surely see through the shallow facades. By the end of the movie, it's pretty clear that the characters are not in control of their own destinies: Mamet pulls their strings, forcing them to say or do things that are completely counter-intuitive to what they'd otherwise do, given the circumstances of the moment. This is why I'm not taking any time to discuss any actual part of the movie. None of the plot is necessary, really: by the time you find out what the bad guys' objectives are, you look back and think, "Well, gee, all you had to do was X, Y and Z, and then just kill him."

Now, with all that said, I still had fun. The movie is definitely quirky, with a style that's not even necessarily typical for David Mamet. There is no bad language, very little sexual overtones, and only one scene with blood (and you don't even care). What makes it unique is the style of the dialog, which could almost be done as a stage play -- in fact, it seems as though you're watching a stage production by the tonality of the characters' voices. The choices of words, inflections and other attributes of the acting and cinematography have a cold, emotionless feeling that seems to be unique in its own way, perhaps the same way Stanley Kubrick's tendency to use wide-angle center-weighted symmetrically balanced scenes defines his style. Of course, there's no comparison between these directors, other than they have their own uniquely identifiable styles. Accordingly, if Mamet's style develops further, all he needs to do is come up with more plausible circumstances for his plots and consistency in his characters.

Would I recommend the movie? Not really, unless you promise not to think too much on your own and to believe everything the movie expects you to. Be forewarned: from what I've read so far, the movie is getting pretty good reviews, even though they passively mention the problems I pointed out. Clearly, other reviewers like Mamet's style, which is the best part of the movie, but my opinion is that it doesn't carry the film.

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