This article contains spoilers.
I first saw Edmond in 2005, the year of its release, and the effect it had on me is difficult to rationalise and describe. I watched the film at a festival of American cinema in Deauville, a small coastal town in northern France, the kind with expensive boutiques, valet-driven sports cars, wide Edwardian promenades and raked sand. Blinking myself back into this surreal world and bright sunshine, I felt panicked, overcome with skin-crawling claustrophobia. I was repulsed. It wasn’t the kind of repulsion I had felt at other times in the cinema. Those instances had always been short and physical, like wincing through the torture scene in Oldboy (2003), but this was something very different, despite the presence of vivid violence (also, oddly enough, teeth-related in one scene). This repulsion lingered and didn’t entirely make sense, like the lasting discomfort after a nightmare where nothing happens. It’s hard to judge Edmond as a good or bad film, but it is certainly one of the most intellectually and morally repulsive films I have had the displeasure of viewing.
The plot of the film, adapted from a play by David Mamet and directed by Stuart Gordon, is fairly simple and conventional in its trajectory. Edmond Burke, played by a soul-sucked, monotone William H. Macy, is an everyman city suit, disaffected and disappointed. He leaves his New York office building and, in turn, his immaculately groomed wife before embarking on a seedy urban odyssey of epic yet well-trodden proportions. The camera follows him past neon-lit dollar stores, down dark side streets, on a graffiti-scrawled subway carriage. It’s a journey that starts in a bar, takes in a clichéd list of lowdown dives (strip joint, brothel, pawn shop), escalates to murderous rage and ends in a prison cell; all the while framed and propelled by a tarot reading, in which the fortune teller warns Edmond, ‘You are not where you belong’. Peace and belonging, it appears, can only be obtained behind bars. Freedom is achieved by escaping the seemingly free outside world. The script brings up a number of existentialist questions that echo the storyline of Albert Camus’s L’Etranger.
David Mamet’s script is brutal in its language. The terms of abuse are misogynistic, homophobic and, perhaps most vehemently, racist. Central to the film is the idea of an emasculated white man, fearful and yet jealous of the black men he meets on the mean city streets, which amount to a skewed landscape of hustlers, pimps and thieves. Edmond believes that he has been conditioned by society to pity and fear black men (‘47 years says he’s underpaid, he can’t get a job, he’s bigger than me’) and has been caught up ‘in a mess of intellectuality’. He has been ‘taught to hate’ by society but also forced to hide this loathing. His journey allows him to throw off these shackles and embrace his true feelings: an aggressive combination of hatred and bigotry. He cries with the zeal of a new convert: ‘If it makes you feel whole, say it. Always say it. There is no history, no laws’. After killing a black pimp in an alleyway, Edmond recalls how he saw the man as a human being for the first time during the attack.
When shaking off his former self in this way, Edmond can be seen as a riposte to societal pressure and political correctness, suggesting that we are compelled to suppress our true, less complicated instincts and selves under enforced social veneers. But while striving for authenticity might be admirable in many ways, the film presents a loathsome view of what lies beneath: a survival-of-the-fittest competition filled with racial, national and gender stereotypes. It’s an ugly and – to my mind – repellent Catch 22 and the classic manipulator’s trick: an argument founded on shaky premises but one that does not allow for any counterpoints, because it’s already shut out and sewn up the alternatives in a horrible, confusing mess of faulty logic. And that is what I find skin-crawling and claustrophobic about this script. We are confronted with one man’s incoherent, hate-filled ramblings, which spew forth from a mind obsessed with notions of control and power, and expected to find some profound or revealing universal truths. When incarcerated, Edmond muses on whether the only person who can truly understand life is ‘some fuck locked up who has lots of time for reflection’. Are we meant to see Edmond as a prophet? The script, acting and direction never make it clear whether we are supposed to have any sympathy for this character. There are no moral shifts or shades of grey, as in Taxi Driver (to which the DVD’s blurb makes a comparison). It’s all just one colourless, incessant, relentless monologue. It is suffocating. The script gives the audience no air to breathe, no room to think beyond or challenge its view of humanity. And perhaps that’s the point – that Edmond’s narrow view is terrifying and repulsive up close – but it’s a point that’s also never made clearly. The film is a dialogue-heavy 88 minutes of macho polemic that chases itself round in circles. The talk is about big themes – sex, power, religion, money and race – but the exchanges are unsatisfactory. Characters re-phrase each other’s sentences or talk at each other in an endless stream of questions. These are clever tricks but they leave the audience a bit cheated: ideas and concepts come and go as quickly as the next phrase arrives.
Towards the end of the film, it appears that redemption may be on its way when Edmond is forced to share a cell with a black prisoner and confront his newly vocalised racism. Standing face to face with his cellmate, he acknowledges that perhaps his beliefs mask another truth: ‘Every fear hides a wish’. His fellow prisoner forces Edmond to perform oral sex, towering over his cowering body, trapped in a corner of the cell. Edmond seems horrified at first about his homosexual experiences – we see him complaining to the prison priest – but the two eventually unite and end the film curled around each other in bed. While this neat, final twist might imply that Edmond has undergone a transformation, acknowledging and following a latent desire, one gets the sense that this development could be as quickly overturned as all his other so-called insights (his view of sex as salvation, his initial racism, his brief interest in a church meeting, his remorse at killing a waitress after a one-night stand). Despite a goodnight kiss, there is no connection, understanding or meaningful interaction between Edmond and his fellow prisoner. Edmond continues his questioning of life – now confined by prison bars rather than outside societal expectations – while his cellmate answers indifferently. He reaches no conclusion and neither do we. Edmond is searching for meaning and understanding in his life but cannot find it and, while he searches, he feels the need to involve everyone around him: the waitress is killed because she fails to agree with Edmond’s assertion that she is simply a waitress rather than an actress (which she aspires to be); the pimp is killed at whim because he does not give Edmond what he wants; and his cellmate is forced into listening to his endless philosophical quandaries. There is a pitiful bullying quality to the character of Edmond and the dialogue of the film itself, as they force secondary characters and the audience into following Edmond’s existentialist journey rather than forging their own.
The character of Edmond embarks on a path of personal enlightenment that challenges societal preconceptions, but what results is an individualistic, ugly, aggressive worldview based on a macho, racially discriminatory premise. And because of the bombarding style of dialogue, it’s a view that does not allow for any dissenters despite its striving for individual authenticity. It’s one I find thoroughly ugly to witness. It is not easy to analyse and unpack all the reasons why I felt such violent, bone-seeping disgust at Edmond. I can list the aspects I disliked about the film but, in many ways, repulsion is deeply personal. It feels like one of the most primeval, instinctive emotions a human being can experience: it’s a flight-or-fight instant reaction. To be made to feel that way for an hour and a half is quite a feat.