In our soul, we sense there’s going to be a cataclysm.
–Edmond (William H. Macy)
Edmond Burke (William H. Macy) is lost. Despite his comforts — steady job, spacious apartment (accented with $220 lamps), and attractive wife — he feels timid and unsure. As he glides out of his office one Friday evening, his secretary hands him a Post-It note that his Monday meeting has been moved to 1:15. He soon finds himself in front of a fortuneteller’s shop, also marked with the number 115. The fortuneteller gives him a tarot reading before telling him, “You are not where you belong.”
It’s an enigmatic opening to a film that remains inscrutable, or incoherent, depending on your response to David Mamet’s adaptation of his own 1982 play. Edmond goes home and tells his wife (Rebecca Pidgeon), “I’m not coming back.” She asks, “Why now? Why leave now?” Edmond doesn’t answer this question, and neither does the film.
Freed from his former life but without any ideas for a new one, Edmond wanders into an upscale bar. There a well-dressed man (Joe Mantegna) holds forth on race, power, and manhood. “We’re bred to do the things we do,” he argues. Edmond’s innate fear of the world is not his fault — it’s genetics. But, “a man’s gotta get away from himself,” argues the man, through “Pussy. Power. Money. Adventure. Self-destruction. I think that’s it.” When Edmond reveals that he doesn’t “feel like a man,” his new guru prescribes the standard cure doe men in crisis: “You need to get laid.” Edmond enthusiastically agrees, though he doesn’t know how to do so.
As he leaves, the man offers Edmond a card advertising the Allegro Club. Framed as Edmond’s viewpoint, the business card briefly shifts into a tarot card, the Hierophant, most often representing a connection to the divine. It also represents wisdom-seeking, wise counsel, and the tension between conformity and innovation (this shorthand for character “development” shows up repeatedly, as different tarot cards).
The card makes clear that Edmond is a conformist looking for a teacher, a new routine. His search for one version of that — sexual gratification — sends him into a New York City that’s a playground of the id, but he’s either too naïve or too shy to take advantage. After meeting a dancer at the Allegro Club, he berates her for not being “straight” with him, as he “came in here to get away from all the bullshit.” He might be looking for easy sex, but, the film suggests, he’s also looking for a “human” connection amid the city’s shadows. He doesn’t have the confidence, the stereotypically male drive to dominate, to get what he wants. He doesn’t even have the cash to do so, reduced to arguing over $10 with a peep-show girl (Bai Ling).
Edmond’s efforts to “get away from himself” repeatedly fail. Tossed from the club, ignored by the peep-show girl, he also misses an opportunity with a high-priced whore (Mena Suvari): he has no pussy, power, or money, Still, he presses on, increasingly reckless and impulsive during the night. He tries to make back his money at a three-card monte table, which leads to a beating.
Only after he pawns his wedding ring for a survival knife does Edmund’s luck seem to turn. What good, the film implies, is a wedding ring to man of the street, trying to exert his will on a hostile world? The phallic knife gives Edmond confidence to act. Asked about it later, Edmond says, “It’s for protection… from everybody.” His bloody entrance into manhood comes when a pimp (Lionel Mark Smith) tries to rob him; Edmond slashes him, delivering a savage beating and a stream of racial epithets.
This, the film implies, is what real men do. Violence liberates him from society’s restraints, focuses him on fulfilling his own desires, and, perhaps most importantly, makes him appealing to the opposite sex. Holding power over life and death, he’s “got some warlike blood in [his] veins.” As he explains to a young waitress (Julia Stiles), “There is no law, there is no history. There is only now. And if there’s a God, he may love the weak, Glenna, but he respects the strong.”
It’s an ugly, seductive sentiment, and one, judging by Edmond’s fate, the film is reluctant to endorse fully. As he realizes too late, a world built on “might makes right” is a precarious one. The feeling he claims to have in his soul, “that there’s going to be a cataclysm,” is the subconscious realization that a knife — or a gun or missile — is no protection against his sense of emptiness.