Movie: The Music of Chance (1992)

David Lynch has repeatedly said he is more interested in questions than answers.  1992’s The Music of Chance isn’t a Lynch picture; however, it has an intriguing premise which left a few threads entirely resolved at the end.

But this is the rare kind of movie where I accepted the lack of complete closure.  I feel it was appropriate for a work with such a bizarre premise.

The movie starts with Mandy Patinkin driving down a country lane when he sees a figure stumbling by the side of the road.  This will turn out to be James Spader, who accepts the offer of a ride. 

He has a very curious story, claiming to have been ahead in a high stakes poker game when robbers make off with the proceedings.  Supposedly, he was ahead by roughly ten grand when the robbery occurred, and two players who especially took a fleecing accuse Spader of staging the heist himself.  Those men, the cryptically named Misters Flower and Stone, have invited Spader to their mansion for a three-man game, should he be able to raise ten grand for the pot.

If this sounds like the plot for a Mamet film, then you have a good idea of what it is aiming for.  It isn’t as good as, say, House of Games, but it holds its own and will turn out be a unique film of its own.  Similar to a lot of Mamet’s work, the dialogue is often profane and feels like violence even when no physical violence is being shown. 

I find it difficult to say much about the plot without giving away potential clues for the directions it goes.  At the same time, I have to relate enough of it to convince you to see it.  And you should see this film.

Basically, Spader is being setup by Flower and Stone, and Patinkin fronts him the necessary funds.  Exactly why Patinkin does this is curious, especially when a career poker player is a compulsive liar by definition.  Plus, Spader is wearing a shirt covered in tiny symbols that I swear is the Wingdings font or something very similar to it. That may not be a sign of a deceptive nature, but it definitely suggests insanity.

And, yet, Spader proves his mettle in a long round of games against Patinkin, who claims the pants have been beaten off him.  Fortunately, that isn’t literal, unless he was wearing one pair of pants over another, which gives me an idea in case I ever have to play strip poker.

At the house, Flower and Stone show him a room containing a town in miniature, a “City of the World” that supposedly shows key moments of the life of Willy Stone (Joel Grey).  Tellingly, many of the moments captured in miniature show crime doesn’t pay, whether its as simple and humorous as a burglar slipping on a banana peel or more sinister ones, such as a man being executed by firing squad.

Patinkin inquires about an undeveloped area of this microcosm, and it is explained to him that part of this will be a miniature of the house they are in, replete with a reproduction of the “City of the World” with them looking at it.  I bet Escher would have creamed his shorts over the idea of such an endless regression.

Needless to say, the poker game ends with Spader and Patinkin deeply in debt to these two sinister old men.  Charles Durning especially oozes menace in the poker sequences, as Mr. Flower.  He has a line I keep chewing on, concerning how numbers have souls and you have to treat them as individuals.  Prime numbers, in particular, are ones that refuse to cooperate.  Grey, on the other hand, just radiates potential serial killer vibes which, to be honest, is how I think of him in everything I have seen so far.  Yes, I am including Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins in that.

It is arranged that Patinkin and Spader will repay their debt by building a long stone wall on the property.  It is estimated that, at $10 an hour, they can complete the work and repay the debt in 50 days.  The wall will serve no purpose, other than a monument to itself.  The two can stay in a trailer that, tellingly, is already on the site. 

I knew of this premise going on and thought it sounded too strange for me to suspend disbelief for.  But I can happily report it feels like a natural development in the world of this film.  That Grey is building a replica wall in miniature in “The City of the World”, in parallel with construction on the actual wall, came as no surprise to me.

That’s about all I feel I can say without giving too much away.  As I said at the start, not everything will be resolved, but I believe that is true to the nature of the movie.  Recommended for everybody.

Dir: Philip Haas

Starring Mandy Patinkin, James Spader, M. Emmett Walsh, Charles Durning, Joel Grey

Watched on Imprint blu-ray (import, but plays on region A players)