by Anthony King
I suppose that's easier in a movie compared to a play. But when you have a writer like David Mamet, all you want is the “tell” portion of the idiom. In his play American Buffalo, my favorite in the Mamet compendium of writings, the dialogue bears down on the audience at a Chayefsky clip; the sheer amount of words and the speed with which they are delivered will cause heart palpitations. I don't partake, but I assume you get the same feeling when imbibing in cocaine as when you experience a Mamet. If my limited consumption of his interviews and non-fiction writing is any indicator, this is Mamet's intent. He is a masochist. His motive in writing is to kill the viewer or reader. If said consumer doesn't walk away from a Mamet script with at least one pulmonary embolism, he has failed.
Most known for his play Glengarry Glen Ross and the film adaptation for which he wrote the screenplay, David Mamet takes a hard look at humanity and the people that float and survive just beneath the surface where you and I go about our days. In Glengarry Glen Ross, he uses real estate salesmen to show how everybody is out for themselves, that empathy is a waste of time and energy, and that you must “always be closing.” In Oleanna, a student and her professor show us that those in power will always be trying to take advantage of people, but also be careful who you fuck with. In American Buffalo, greed is on full display with a heavy dose of anger. And in most of Mamet's works, men are gigantic pieces of shit. Most days I go about my life with a fairly sunny disposition: people are generally good; life is worth living; love is always the answer. This is not the approach Mamet takes which, in my opinion, makes for excellent entertainment.
American Buffalo, like most Mamet plays, is centered around a very small cast – in this case three men – and primarily takes place in a single location – in this case an antique store. The cast is comprised of Dennis Franz as Don, our shop owner; Dustin Hoffman as Teach, our angry instigator; and Sean Nelson as Bob, the kid who Don looks after and just wants to be included. Directed by Michael Corrente and with a screenplay by Mamet, the centrally-located story already feels claustrophobic due to Mamet's dialogue, but now 90% of the film takes place in an antique shop where lamps and clocks and rusty hooks and furniture and instruments look as though the walls themselves are constructed from junk. Narrow corridors are formed by desks and televisions and magazine racks, just wide enough for a human to slink through. Numerous flat surfaces give actors plenty of places to sit, in turn acting like a totally separate room among the flotsam and jetsam. Like all things Mamet, the actors never ever step on each other's lines. The patter between Franz and Hoffman and Nelson, like Pacino and Baldwin and Lemmon in Glengarry, has a unique gait only achieved through the words of Mamet. Nelson's innocence, Franz's annoyance delivered through his heavy Chicago accent, and Hoffman's boiling ire make American Buffalo stand out among the big blockbusters and interesting independent films of the mid-'90s.