Don’t look for a Spanish prisoner in David Mamet’s new film, The Spanish Prisoner. There isn’t one…but, that’s the point. In this intricate thriller, nothing is quite as it seems…or is it?
Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) thinks he’s on the verge of hitting the big time. He’s just invented a complex financial formula called The Process, which could mean huge profits for his company. His boss, Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara), has promised him due compensation at the next stockholder’s meeting, but his friend George Lang (Ricky Jay), a company lawyer, advises him he should get something in writing, or he might get screwed.
Thus do Joe, George, Mr. Klein, and Susan Ricci (Rebecca Pidgeon), a company secretary who has a crush on Joe, travel to a Caribbean resort island St. Estephe to sell The Process. While there, Joe meets a mysterious businessman, Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), who befriends him and begins to give him worldly advice.
But then, things begin to fall apart, and the overly-trusting Joe begins to have doubts. Is anyone really who they seem? Is Joe being played for a sucker? If so, who is out to get him, and who can he trust?
David Mamet’s complex plot is well constructed, and full of myriad twists and turns. The whole film is pleasantly reminiscent of Hitchcock. However, under strict analysis, the film doesn’t quite hold up that well (there are too many convenient coincidences). But it’s still leagues ahead of most thrillers.
Campbell Scott does an excellent job of pulling in the audience. His overly nice character could have been off-putting in a cynical world, or even been seen as a weakness. However, he manages to imbue Joe Ross with a strong everyman quality which makes him likable despite his flaws.
Steve Martin is the film’s most welcome surprise. In a mostly dramatic role, he delivers a delightful performance, with just the right amount of edge to be slightly unnerving.
Of the cast, the biggest disappointment has to be Rebecca Pidgeon. Her stiff delivery is the film’s most significant detraction. Whether it was either a conscious character quirk, or a result of over-memorization, her flat and precise delivery lets you know there’s an actor at work… shattering the veil of disbelief.
Thankfully, she has a wonderful script (written by her husband, director Mamet, no less) to build it up again. There may be flaws here and there, but for the most part, they work within the context of the film, and only truly make themselves known during reminiscence.