Music of Chance, The (United States, 1993)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

On the way to New York City, James Nashe (Mandy Patinkin) stops by the side of the road to offer a lift to a beat-up and bedraggled stranger. This man turns out to be Jack Pozzi (James Spader), a professional gambler. As the two get to talking, Pozzi tells Nashe of a recent robbery that lost him the ten-thousand dollars he was going to use in an upcoming "sure thing" poker game. Intrigued by the idea of some quick, easy money, Nashe offers Pozzi a proposition. He'll advance the ten-thousand if all profits get split fifty-fifty. The deal is struck and the two are off to the rural Pennsylvania residence of Flower and Stone (Charles Durning and Joel Grey), where the games begin.

The Music of Chance can be seen on many levels. At its most literal, it's about the consequences of losing a poker game (building a gigantic stone wall). However, for those who peel back the straightforward plot to peer at what lies beneath it, more imposing and thought-provoking issues are revealed. The Music of Chance explores how one moment can forever alter -- and perhaps destroy -- lives. It also reinforces the old saying that luck is too capricious a force to trust.

At the center of the story are three characters. James Nashe is the basic "nice guy" who believes in honoring obligations regardless of the cost. He is also inclined to accept far more of the blame than he deserves. On the other hand, his mismatched partner, Jack Pozzi, is unwilling to accept the blame for anything; he would rather shift it to fate, chance, or anything else he can make a connection with. Calvin Murks (M. Emmet Walsh) represents the crusty authority who keeps these two very different men together in a union that they don't want, but can't deny.

Metaphors abound, from the "wailing wall" to the "City of the World" being built by Willie Stone. In fact, there's so much symbolism that little in this movie has a single, straightforward meaning. There are times when the screenplay tries too hard to be intellectual, spouting such nonsense as prime numbers having souls, but these isolated instances in no way detract from the deeper meaning of the overall story. Character motivation and interaction are driving forces, and necessary for an understanding of everything that happens during The Music of Chance.

James Spader, cast against type, is completely believable as the unsavory, unlikeable Jack. M. Emmet Walsh does his usual "good ol' boy" routine with a sadistic twist. The standout, however, is Mandy Patinkin who, with little fanfare, captures our attention and sympathy with his unforced portrayal of James Nashe, the innocent victim trapped and battered by fate. Nashe stands as a perfect example, if any is really needed, that life is never fair.

The ambiguity of the conclusion is a potential weakness. Movies of this sort don't have to wrap up all their disparate plot threads for the whole to come together, but The Music of Chance would have benefitted from a little more sureness about how everything works out. Although admittedly not for mass consumption, the film may cause consternation even among some typical "art film" viewers. Nevertheless, despite the final scenes' lack of definition, this picture has such a mesmerizing cadence that it's difficult not to be fascinated, whether you understand what it all means or not. The role of chance in human destiny is a compelling theme that The Music deftly plays.

Music of Chance, The (United States, 1993)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 1993-08-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1