American Buffalo (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It opens with images of a late-night poker game: cards, chips, sweaty palms, concerned faces, and a woman's fingernails. Then, as night turns to day, the camera moves into the streets of New York, and, with the first bit of dialogue, we know we've slipped into the world of David Mamet. No one else writes lines quite like him: profane, staccato, and ending when you think there's more coming. This isn't just a Mamet-scripted movie, either. It's a Mamet-scripted movie based on a Mamet play. Like Glengarry Glen Ross and Oleanna, it's clear that American Buffalo started life on the stage.

Mamet doesn't write for the ordinary movie-goer, which is why American Buffalo has received such limited distribution, irrespective of Dustin Hoffman's presence. The writer is an acquired taste. Although Glengarry Glen Ross won much critical praise, popular opinion was less kind. And views on Oleanna were so widely divergent that, when the film came out, it was difficult to find two people with exactly the same impression. Whether you like him or hate him, though, Mamet usually provokes a strong reaction.

American Buffalo starts out torturously slowly, with lots of cryptic dialogue about not confusing business with pleasure, a "broken toaster", and some kind of "job" that a couple of down-on-their-luck guys are preparing to pull. Those men are Don (Dennis Franz), the owner of a New York junk shop, and Teach (Dustin Hoffman), a '90s version of Midnight Cowboy's Ratso Rizzo. The third character in the story is a teenage boy named Bobby (Sean Nelson) -- a kid without any apparent home, who views Don as a father-figure. He wants to help in the upcoming job, but the two adults are reluctant to get him involved.

It's an understatement to say that the film improves after the unpromising opening. As we become more comfortable with the erratic rhythm of Mamet's dialogue, the plot starts to emerge. Don and Teach are planning to rob some rich guy's coin collection (the title, American Buffalo, refers to the pre-Jefferson nickel), but they don't have a plan or a clear sense of what they're doing. Fundamentally, they're both losers. Teach, a take-things-as-they-come person, wants to get down to the action. Don, a more careful man, wants everything planned out in advance. This conflict leads to a fascinating scene where the two men, sitting in the back of Teach's car, discuss the psychology of home safes -- why people have them, what combinations they use for the locks, and where they hide the piece of paper they write the combination on.

Like a well-written musical composition, American Buffalo builds to a crescendo. The climax, which features a three-way confrontation between Teach, Don, and Bobby, and raises the specter that one or more might be double-dealing and committing a betrayal, is explosive. The sense of paranoid claustrophobia makes the tension almost unbearable.

Director Michael Corrente, who debuted with the derivative gangster film, Federal Hill, does justice to Mamet's script. He elects not to open up the story, but still manages to remind us that the dying city of New York lies just beyond the junk shop's doors. And, after the uncertain first third, Corrente builds a grim, edgy mood that never abates. When the rain and thunder start outside, their fury is nothing compared to the storm building around the characters.

Dustin Hoffman plays Teach with caged energy. He's all mannerisms and nervous tics -- the waiting is unbearable; he wants to act. He's the consummate failure who never gives up hoping for that one big score. It should come as no surprise that Al Pacino played the part on stage. But, by harkening back to Midnight Cowboy and resurrecting aspects of the long-dormant Ratso Rizzo, Hoffman makes this role his own. It's the kind of towering performance that, if it came in a bigger film, would start talk of an Oscar nomination.

Dennis Franz, an Emmy winner for NYPD Blue, holds his own opposite Hoffman. His Don is the picture of a man wracked by uncertainty. Should he do the job or not? Should he bring in a third man? Should he trust Bobby? Should he trust Teach? Does he need the money badly enough to put up with all this aggravation? Meanwhile, Sean Nelson, who first appeared in Fresh, brings an enigmatic mixture of hardness and innocence to his portrayal of Bobby, keeping us unsure, until the end, of the character's motives. Unfortunately, he doesn't quite have the screen presence to stand toe-to-toe with his experienced co-stars.

In the final analysis, American Buffalo is an intense, but flawed, piece of drama. The ending winds the tension so tautly that everything feels ready to snap, but, to reach that point, it's necessary to plod through a murky beginning. Mamet's play may be twenty years old, but the themes of loyalty, betrayal, and ruthlessness are as applicable to the current social and economic environment as they were in the '70s. And that's a compelling reason why, if you don't mind the initial discomfort, it's worth staying for the entire film.

American Buffalo (United States, 1996)

Director: Michael Corrente
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Franz, Sean Nelson
Screenplay: David Mamet based on his play
Cinematography: Richard Crudo
Music: Thomas Newman
U.S. Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Company
Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: 1996-09-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1