Patron Pick – House of Games

This special reward is available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 monthly levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. If they choose, they also get to include some of their thoughts about the movie. This Pick comes from Matt Harris.

House of Games (1987)
Written by Jonathan Katz & David Mamet
Directed by David Mamet

“David Mamet is a controversial figure” is pretty much an understatement. I can’t claim I have ever known the writer and his work intimately. Like many people, I saw Glengarry Glen Ross. I remember a professor showing Oleanna in a college class. That’s about it. The other way I know Mamet is from his post-9/11 remarks. I get the sense he was never a well-balanced person, but in the wake of that terrorist attack, Mamet became much more vocal about his political beliefs. In 2008, he claimed to no longer be liberal and now a conservative. Mamet has also stated that Donald Trump was a “great president” and espouses all the views you might associate with someone like that. This was a long way of saying Mamet is an unhinged reactionary who is also a talented playwright.

House of Games tells the story of Margaret (Lindsay Crouse), a psychiatrist who has recently published a book on obsessive-compulsive disorders. During a session with Billy, one of her patients, she learns his gambling addiction has led him to be in danger from a mob associate. Billy threatens suicide, so Margaret takes extreme action and goes to the House of Games to pay off Billy’s debt. She meets the dangerous man, Mike Mancuso (Joe Mantegna). He comes up with a counter. At the moment, Mike is taking a break from a long night of cards and needs Margaret to pose as his girlfriend. He wants her to watch George (Ricky Jay), who he suspects is hiding a tell and getting away with bluffing through numerous losing hands. Margaret does, and things turn out much differently than she expected. The result is that a door is opened, a passage for her to live in a new skin and become a different person who walks up to the edge and looks down.

This is a very atmospheric and cleverly constructed story. It feels like a film far ahead of its time, akin to something from the mid-late 1990s rather than the late 1980s. The reason behind this is the attention to detail when developing the characters and building a compelling series of conflicts. It amounts to something leaning into noir films without feeling the need to cling to every trope. Mamet is a big fan of conmen and their work, devoting many of his stories to men in desperate situations and trying to dupe their way out of them. He loves the language of criminals, using slang to serve as coded communique to keep the police off their trail.

The language is pristine, as you find with all of Mamet’s work. Margaret and Mike engage in a verbal battle, and language is weaponized. What they withhold becomes as important as what they reveal. There are points where the words become more important than the performances, with some actors delivering slightly clunky line reads. It doesn’t hurt the film and adds authenticity to the characters. Mamet’s world is one where every person operates with an agenda and does most of their harm through speech rather than violent acts. Margaret is an anomaly in Mamet’s work, a woman at the story’s center. However, it would be easy to argue she’s desexualized, existing as a type of man, “lesser” in Mamet’s eyes because she cannot operate at the level the conmen are. She has to prove herself through the film’s starkest act of violence, and could be read as undercutting the emotional role of women in conflict (i.e., “Margaret cannot compete on the intellectual level of Mike and his peers; therefore, she must use a gun to express her frustrations.”)

Despite viewing himself as “liberal” and being embraced by that political class during the first half of his career, I would argue Mamet has always been reactionary. You can see it clearly in the work. His themes have always been a frustration with institutions and don’t immediately bring to mind the American conservatism of the 1980s. However, he’s never held any powerful stances on social justice, which doesn’t plant him on the “Left-ish” side of the American political spectrum. Mamet’s views are anti-establishment but clearly seen through the lens of individualism rather than collectivism or community. Everyone is a rat in his world, scrounging and what is admirable is when a character gets one up on another. They have “proven their intellectual superiority.”

Instead, Mamet’s beliefs are much more in line with the New Left, the yuppie-fashioned variation on Democratic politics that would lead to the conservatism administration of Bill Clinton. Mamet is bereft of a proper understanding of his beliefs, much less the spectrum of politics in the United States. Like many liberals before him, he shifted to right-wing politics. Such a shallow examination of humans in an ahistorical vacuum always produces this. Mamet’s conjectures reveal the common mistake made in U.S. political discourse, mainly that there is a gulf between liberalism and actual radical ideology. 

Liberalism is just as much a part of establishment politics as conservatism. Neither is “radical” in the way that term is commonly defined. They are embedded in the functioning of things. An actual radical thinker would have penned a different ending of House of Games, where Margaret out-wits Mike, cons him back, and proves herself more cunning than her adversary. That doesn’t mean House of Games is a poor film; it’s a delight to watch just for the dialogue. Mamet remains a fascinating artist not just because of his mastery of language but because of how profoundly that conflicts with his dearth of actual coherent political understanding. He is genuinely a fascinating specimen of reactionary ideology.


One thought on “Patron Pick – House of Games”

  1. Pingback: Fall 2022 Digest

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