“You tampered with the universe my friend, and when a man does that he has to pay the price.”
When life throws a curveball, it’s easy to look for something or someone to blame, be it God, karma, luck, fate or the stars. On rare occasions, we even shoulder the responsibility ourselves. We ponder what went wrong and if it could have been prevented, overthinking alternative courses which would have led us down a different track.
These are the existential questions facing two “know-nothing” drifters, finding themselves voluntarily imprisoned and working off a gambling debt that’ll still leave them penniless. The vagaries of fortune and misfortune come under the microscope, as the two men argue the opposing forces of predestination vs the consequences of dumb luck. How do we know if the paths we cross are true for us?
Adapted from Paul Auster’s absurdist novel, pitch-perfect casting – featuring career-best performances from James Spader and Mandy Patinkin – combine with lean, laser-focused execution to produce a mesmerising 90’s masterpiece, examining destiny, chance, honour, power, retribution and how accepting our choices define us.
Gliding through the trees, to a graceful opera soundtrack, we pick out a red BMW in the opening credits. Jim Nashe (Mandy Patinkin) is a retired fireman, spending his life savings aimlessly driving across America for the sheer joy of the open road. As he later explains: “The feeling you get when you’re going along an empty highway and everything is flashing past. You know nothing lasts more than a moment, or holds you back, or weighs you down. When I was driving nothing could hurt me anymore.”
Until he picks up bloodied and beaten Jack Pozzi (James Spader), a professional card player, who has just lost everything when his last game was robbed. As angry as Pozzi is about being left without a “single f***ing dime”, he is even more distraught that he won’t be able to make the $10,000 buy-in for a poker game he’d set up with two rich chumps in Pennsylvania. He was confident he’d be able to take the amateurs for at least five times that: “I don’t fuck around when it comes to poker. 9 times out of 10 I come out on top. It’s like a law of nature.”
Sensing an opportunity, Nashe offers to fund Pozzi for a 50/50 split of the winnings. Once Jack proves himself to be as good as he claims, a partnership is struck. Jim buys him a new suit and the odd couple head down to an isolated mansion estate in the countryside, getting past suspicious gatekeeper Calvin Murks (M Emmett Walsh) to meet their prey.
Their targets are Bill Flower (Charles Durning) and Willie Stone (Joel Grey) – eccentric Laurel and Hardy lookalikes dressed in matching white suits – lifetime best friends who made their fortune on a winning lottery ticket 7 years before. They believe their good luck was fated: “It seems that God has singled us out from other men.” Losing to Jack before was the only time they’ve failed since then, so were keen for a rematch, taking lessons from a professional in the interim.
The first half of the game proceeds as planned, with Jack showing his card-sharps. However, when there is a break for the duo to get more money, Jim excuses himself to the bathroom. He takes a detour to look at Stone’s City of the World, a vast model landscape populated by miniature facsimiles of Willie himself through the course of his life – from a child playing, through working in his shop, to buying the lucky ticket with his pal – an artistic show of “one man’s journey.” Nashe steals a model of the duo buying the winning ticket, marking a turning point in their fortune and his.
Returning to the game, he finds it turned for the worse. With his “lucky charm” gone for an hour, Jack has started losing. Jim adds the last $2300 of his savings to the pot, which swiftly disappears, so offers to put his BMW up for collateral. Cruelly, he is offered only $5000, but accepts and when that too is lost, cuts cards for double or nothing. Losing to a 7 (“looks like we’ve hit the magic number again”) the hapless pair are now in debt for $10,000 to the millionaires. The solution is to work it off and Flower and Stone already have a task waiting for them – to build a wall on the estate…