Can a movie predicated on an endless series of twists and turns still carry any dramatic or emotional weight even if you can predict every turn before it happens? 90% of the time I would say no it can’t, and that would be the end of the story. Predictability should be the death-knell of any noir or thriller worth its weight in salt, but leave it to playwright auteur David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) to be the exception to that rule. The psychological gamesmanship on display in House of Games is blindingly forecasted almost from the start, and when all is said and done, if you can’t guess what’s going to happen, you’re likely a little dense. But, despite the fact that House of Games is a psychological crime thriller/neo-noir on its surface, it is really a character study into man’s attraction into our darkest impulses, and in that regard, it’s a typical Mamet success.
My rather immense enjoyment of House of Games was unexpected (despite how much I worship Glengarry Glen Ross and mostly enjoyed Wag the Dog) because at the beginning of the film, the movie radiates a sense of theatrical artificiality. House of Games was Mamet’s directorial debut, and considering his background as a stage director, I had initially assumed that he was simply struggling to adjust to the big screen. I realized that was all intentional because House of Games is all about the masks we wear when we interact with others and how virtually all human interactions involve the exploitation of others to fulfill our own needs. And so as the leads of the film slowly start to shed their masks (or are simply better at hiding their mask than others), the lens of theatricality slowly begins to slip away from the film and it is revealed for the stunning psychological insight it is.
Margaret Ford (Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Lindsay Crouse) is a best-selling author and psychiatrist specializing in addiction and compulsive behavior. But, Maggie’s life is empty and she feels that much of her work is meaningless and that her most vulnerable patients are beyond her help. And when a young, troubled gambling addict walks into her office fearful that a $25,000 debt he owes to a bookie may mean his life, Maggie attempts to truly help someone for maybe the first time in her life. But even then, Maggie’s motivations aren’t quite what they appear. At the back room poker game, Maggie meets Mike (Joe Mantegna), the bookie that the gambler says he owes money to. But, in the first of many of the film’s twist, the debt isn’t $25,000. It’s only $800, and soon after, Maggie finds herself seduced into a world of fast-talking con-men and dangerous liars.
Though the film finds itself falling down a somewhat predictable path, I don’t want to ruin anything for those who haven’t seen it (and maybe don’t have my perceptive sense for how noir and crime thrillers work). But, House of Games starts out as what you think may be one woman’s attempt to redeem herself and instead chronicles her descent into a world of crime, easy money, and constant deception. And in that regard, House of Games hits on that classic Mamet theme: a cynical perspective on human nature. In Mike’s world (which quickly becomes Lindsay’s world), there are two types of people: suckers and those with the gumption to part the suckers from their money when given the opportunity. And Mamet extends that dynamic to our entire life where we either suffer or we exploit someone else to alleviate our own suffering. He isn’t saying that’s right. He just observes that’s how it is.
I have complex feelings towards the performances in this film because of the sense of artificiality that I mentioned at the beginning of the movie. Early dialogue is either delivered in bored monotone or from a place of theatrical bombast. But, they’re doing that intentionally so part of me can’t fault them for this. And, in fact, I suspect that on a future second viewing, I might appreciate this more at the beginning when I understand what’s meant to be done. Because as the film progresses, both Joe Mantegna and Lindsay Crouse (particularly Crouse) deliver hidden layers and unexpected complexities. Crouse finds herself finally free to be herself for the first time in her entire life and without wanting to spoil the film, let it be said that Mantegna proves to be overwhelmingly excellent as a con man and reader of human nature.
I also have somewhat complicated feelings towards the film’s direction. Glengarry Glen Ross worked so well as a movie because the director gave the film a suffocating visual atmosphere that wasn’t even possible in the stage play. And while there are some inspired shots in House of Games, it was also clear that it was Mamet’s first directorial feature and thus the film comes of as slightly stale from time to time. Also, understanding his intentions to make the film seem artificial at times (it draws attention to itself so we, the audience, recognize the hollowness of the characters’ lives), that doesn’t mean there weren’t times where it all felt too forced and it drew me too much out of the action of the film. What happened at moments was that Mamet appeared supremely proud (and rightfully so of his dialogue) and by putting so much theatrical emphasis on words, we were forced to recognize his (admitted) genius. It entered the realm of literary pretense.
Thankfully, the script more than outweighs any concerns I may have about direction or acting. Mamet is, along with Kenneth Lonergan, one of the great writers of our day. And through his obsession with the darkest impulses of human nature (how capitalism and ambition turn us into monsters in Glengarry or how the pursuit of power can only lead to corruption in Wag the Dog), Mamet fashions tale after tale of men and women at the brink of morality. House of Games shows how the allure of depravity and dishonesty can seduce even the most seemingly upright members of the community. And though House of Games appears to limp out of the gates, once it picks up a head of steam, it flies onward full-stop to a satisfying (if not unexpected) finale and for all fans of Mamet’s work and great neo-noir, it is a must-see film.
Final Score: A-