William H. Macy (i.e., the Fargo one, not the Maude one), is the lead character in this David Mamet Falling Down or Taxi Driver-type movie about a man who rebels against society in an increasingly insane and violent way.
Edmond is like Bug, which I wrote about recently, in that it’s about a weirdo character who at first is mostly “different” in ways I like, and then turns out to also be crazy in obviously bad ways.
I don’t care for that message, frankly. This is something I’ve thought about in the past, that in the popular mind, people casually equate being a social non-conformist or rejecting the typical games and bullshit which people engage in for no reason except that everyone else does, with being an “ax murderer” or a “serial killer.” Whereas my contention is that “normal,” conformist, conventionally successful people are responsible for introducing incalculably more evil into the world than social misfits and Kramer-type “thinking outside the box” oddballs ever dream of. And I think movies like these perpetuate the stereotype that if a guy is honest in socially inappropriate ways, if he doesn’t naturally and smoothly play the games, then you better not let him into your life since he’s probably a Hannibal Lecter.
So I mostly liked this character early. Not a hundred percent; even from the beginning there are elements of his unconventionality that are disturbing. But I mostly appreciated, and found humorous, the way he states to his wife, in an utterly calm, serious way, looking her straight in the eye, that he is leaving her and not coming back, that he doesn’t love her, that he finds her “spiritually and sexually” uninteresting, and that he has come to the realization that it is unacceptable to him to live his life as he’s lived it for another moment.
She is so startled by the utterly abnormal frankness and directness of his declaration that it takes her awhile to realize this is where she’s supposed to get angry. She gets there eventually, but in the meantime she flounders in confusion.
And so he sets off into the night, wandering in something of a solemn daze, looking for he knows not what exactly. Maybe looking to know what freedom feels like, maybe looking for adventure, maybe looking for sex.
But mostly looking for honesty and human connection.
This was the part of Edmond that most drew me in, and the part of the movie when I most liked and identified with the character.
As he drifts through encounters on the street, in strip clubs, in massage parlors, etc., he expresses himself with a childlike, simple earnestness and honesty. His way of asking for sex is to say “I want to have intercourse with you.” When he says “I only have thirty dollars,” it’s because he only has thirty dollars. When he says “I only intended to pay a hundred dollars,” it’s because he only intended to pay a hundred dollars.
And he invites and expects the same from others, matter-of-factly remarking “This is my first time,” “Or I don’t know how this works,” and “I’ll need you to explain this to me and not take advantage of me.” Any time someone hints around about something, or speaks in metaphors, or expects him to read between the lines, he’ll have no part of it: “I don’t understand. What do you mean? Tell me what you mean.”
The responses he gets vary, with for instance the man in the pawn shop leveling with him and telling him straight out he’ll only pay him a tiny fraction of the value of anything he pawns, but mostly, not surprisingly, people do not reciprocate his frankness. Some of what he’s dealing with are out-and-out cons, like three card monte hustlers, but even the more “normal” people engage in the haggling and low level manipulation that’s omnipresent in human interaction, especially when money’s involved. So for the most part he’s not getting the human connection he craves.
So far, I’m mostly with him. I sometimes communicate with people not unlike the way he’s doing. For example, if I’m on the phone with a customer service person reading from a script or just saying what she’s trained to say that someone has determined is on average in the best interests of her paymasters for her to say when in a situation like this with a customer like me, I’ll speak in a very simple, literal, frank, patient way, trying to compel her by my example to break out of her “role” and be a person again. And I have fantasies of being a lot more like that in a lot more situations, communicating with people the way I think people should communicate with each other, whether they cooperate and whether it “works” or not.
But beyond that, he and I separate considerably. I don’t know that I would say the movie itself deteriorates from that point or not. I think it’s more a matter of my subjective experience of it. It spoke to me more when I could see myself in the main character, and less when I could not. But people not wired like me psychologically are not necessarily going to overlap with this character when I do, or at all, so they could experience the movie very differently.
So I share with him a feeling of disgust at the general bullshit and game playing of typical human behavior, at the fact that people can’t just be themselves, state exactly what they think and feel simply and literally, and connect with other people doing the same. But then there are the differences.
I’m used to feeling this way, because I’ve been doing so for decades, and so in some sense I suppose I’ve made my peace with it. For him, it’s more like he just had an epiphany that the way most people conduct themselves is not how life should be (though at least some of his dissatisfaction he’s been aware of for a while, like when he tells his wife he hasn’t loved her in years), and that at this specific point in time he refuses to accept it any longer.
Related to that, although I retain some outrage about these things, my attitude more often is one of sadness or bemusement, whereas he has a real fury inside him, a disposition to unpredictably go from his usual almost inhuman calmness to an explosion of rage when he feels people are not reciprocating his honesty and sense of fair play.
He also has a need to direct his anger beyond the specific individuals that provoke it. So at times he manifests more of a general misanthropy, or he manifests attitudes of crude and vicious racism. He hates the conventional social world, and he hates the fact that he’s powerless to do anything to change it, and somehow psychologically that leads him to look for scapegoats and to hate groups that it’s routine to hate. I don’t get that, or at least I don’t share it.
As an aside, I also wanted to mention that the racist and hateful stuff, both from him and from occasional other characters, is very jarring in this movie. It didn’t ring true for me at all. Macy comes across like someone who has never uttered a racial epithet in his life and is reading from a script.
Lots of people are racist, and some are pretty extreme racists, but somehow not like this. Nowadays racism and its ilk are enormously more subtle, nearly always couched in terms of “states’ rights” or opposition to “reverse discrimination,” or opposition to “special rights,” or concerns about “welfare fraud,” etc. And it’s self-deception too; people are convinced they’re not racist whether they are or not. There are very few social contexts any more where people say, “I hate niggers because of x, y, and z.” When it does happen, with a stranger there’s always a “feeling out” process first, where one works up to that kind of rhetoric. And it’s always accompanied by plenty of patting oneself on the back for one’s bravery in expressing such “truths” that people are no longer supposed to say.
I found myself laughing more than once at the way this movie just seems tone deaf in that regard in its use of characters who express hate in such atypically unself-conscious ways. Though I suppose one could say it makes sense in his case, since he’s decided to be so atypically frank in expressing his beliefs and attitudes in general. But I also don’t know why he’d have such extreme beliefs and attitudes to begin with. I don’t see that it fits all that well with who he is as a character.
It’s possible that Mamet is completely aware that this mostly isn’t how racists express themselves anymore, and that the lack of realism is intentional. Maybe one of the things he’s doing in the movie is imagining a parallel universe where what is normally subtle and unspoken becomes blatant and obvious, so that the viewers are directly confronted with it and have to think about it and respond.
Anyway, I also part ways with the protagonist in the sense that when he becomes fed up that people aren’t willing to join him in detaching from the usual games and petty dishonesties of life, he becomes violent. I just don’t feel that in me. I can sort of understand getting sick enough of it to kill oneself or go live on a desert island or something—that’s not completely foreign to how I’m wired—but I have no direct understanding of what it would be like to want to lash out violently like that when I’m frustrated or dissatisfied with life or with people.
Especially since his anger and violence has a random quality to it, making it even more irrational. It’s not as if he specifically picks out all and only the people who most wronged him or most failed to reciprocate his attempts at total honesty and human connection. Sometimes it’s those folks and sometimes it isn’t. It’s really more of a generalized fury that explodes in moments of panic.
He’s also given to a lot of overconfident and wordy pseudo-philosophizing about it all. I’m more inclined to admit I struggle with how to express the beliefs and attitudes I’ve gradually acquired about life, and to express what I do express in a more tentative, fallible way. I haven’t figured out much, and I’ll be damned if I can articulate the little (I think, maybe) I have figured out. But he’s pretty darn excited about all his new insights, and he very much wants to share them with anyone who will listen.
The movie can be thought of in three main sections: Wandering around like a modern day Diogenes looking for someone to reciprocate his simplicity and frankness, exploding with random violence as he realizes he’s not getting what he wants from his encounters, and incarceration. The third part felt odd to me, like it was an afterthought, like maybe the climax should have been the interrogation when you realize they’ve got him, and the movie should have ended there or very shortly thereafter.
And I’m not sure what to make of that last section. To some extent I think it’s just showing us the further development of his mental illness, including the way he treats murder as seemingly an everyday occurrence, certainly nothing to get more outraged by than the mundane bullshit of ordinary life. Not a good thing when you stop and think about it, but nothing special in the grand scheme of things.
I felt like some of the content of the last section was there just for shock value, or for the kind of symbolism that mostly goes over my head. Then again, it’s certainly a memorable sequence.
In summary, there is enough going on in this movie, both in terms of action and psychology, to have held my interest better than all but a handful of the movies I’ve written about so far. I would also say it provoked a lot of thought in me about some important things (which probably overlaps but not completely with what Mamet intended people to think about), which I always count as a positive. Beyond that, I’m sure there are things to criticize, aspects of the movie that didn’t work particularly well. But in my opinion Edmond is very much worth seeing.