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American Buffalo

Twilight Time // R // May 12, 2015 // Region 0
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Screenarchives]

Review by Neil Lumbard | posted June 7, 2015 | E-mail the Author
American Buffalo is based upon the successful play written by acclaimed writer/director David Mamet. The 1996 film version was produced by Gregory Mosher (who directed the theatrical version which precedes the film). The film stars Dustin Hoffmann, Dennis Franz, and Sean Nelson. This adaptation was directed by Michael Corrente (Outside Providence, A Shot At Glory).

The story is actually pretty simple. The setup of the story introduces the three characters of this story: Teach (Dustin Hoffmann), Don (Dennis Franz), and Bob (Sean Nelson). Don owns and operates a lowly junk-shop located in a crummy and rundown neighborhood. Teach works alongside him but mainly seems to go off on tangents. Bob is a young man from the neighborhood who Don and Teach enlist to run various errands for them at the shop.

Over the course of the story, Don and Teach learn about a man who supposedly owns a nice collection of valuable coins. They scheme up a plan to rob the man of his coin collection. In doing so, the pairing also begins to contemplate bringing their assistant Bob into the mix. It doesn't take long for them to start their robbery plan.

Teach, who has a massive temper, doesn't want Bob to be involved (or for him to get a share of these coins). Don, on the other hand, thinks of the young man as being an asset to getting the valuable coins. Over the course of the film, things spiral out of control between the three characters as they fight, argue, and discuss their plan to steal these rare coins.

Mamet is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers around with successes like Glengarry Glen Ross, State of Main, Spartan, House of Cards, and Redbelt. He is also the screenwriter of classics like The Untouchables. Mamet has worked in theater, film, and television (having created The Unit) and has found success in all three mediums.

The film has an aurora of theatricality all over the production. This begins with the screenplay written by David Mamet. The story only contains these three characters. It is entirely up to the actors to carry the storyline. The plot is actually so simple that the focus is then entirely on the characterization and dialogue. Though viewers might feel a need to discuss the themes or ideas explored in American Buffalo the story told is clearly the type that is produced for the stage and is generally avoided in film.

The setting of the story is also incredibly minimalistic. Almost everything happening in this story occurs within the shop (and largely within one room). With few visual cues during the film, the primary structure of the story is to focus on the performances and characterizations. Mamet is renowned for his dialogue and it makes up a huge part of the experience of American Buffalo. Though the dialogue Mamet utilizes for this story is often quite jarring and disturbing, it's a reflection on the characters and the world they inhibit.

American Buffalo is amongst Mamet's earliest works. The play was his 6th effort, originating from 1975, and was performed off-Broadway at his own theater which he helped found: the Atlantic Theater Company. It eventually found its mark on Broadway as an acclaimed play that became one of his earliest successes. Yet in its film version, American Buffalo isn't necessarily as successful as one might expect.

Surprisingly, the greatest strength of the film is the performances. While I have not seen a theatrical version to compare the film to (including the Broadway version starring Al Pacino), it seems as though the trio cast for this film did commendable work with the performances. The range of Dustin Hoffmann is especially impressive. Hoffmann delves into the role with a quiet precision in many key scenes. When the character becomes upset and agitated, Hoffmann does excellent work making the character a scary force that is at odds with the others. Dennis Franz performs his part with a delicate demeanor but also brings a dark-edge to the character. Even in the smaller supporting role of Bob, Sean Nelson is impressive and holds his own besides greats like Hoffmann and Franz.

Mamet's writing is excellent when it comes to characterization. He's a superb writer who has written many great films. American Buffalo, however, often feels less successful than other cinematic works written by Mamet. The film feels almost too theatrical at times: as if it is literally a version of his play simply staged for film.

One of my favorite films that has a strong theatrical aura to it is Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Many audiences might overlook the fact that the film takes place primarily in one location. However, Tarantino's grasp on the language of cinema is strong and the film tells the story successfully with enough bursts of cinematic energy to work.

Part of the issue with this version of American Buffalo is the result of the direction from Michael Corrente. Some of it is that the story doesn't feel as cinematic and would probably work best on the stage. While Corrente pulls great performances from his actors, the film is lacking strong visual aesthetics and doesn't spend enough time creating a compelling world for these characters and the story. The one-location limitation held throughout the entire story doesn't exactly help, either.

The cinematography by Richard Crudo (American Pie, Down to Earth) is appropriately bleak, dark, and unwelcoming. The film's visual aesthetic as far as the cinematographic approach is concerned accurately reflects the bleakness of these character's world and their reality. The production design by Daniel Talpers is also effective in showcasing the low-fi setting the characters inhabit. The costumes by Deborah Newhall are also befitting the characters.

Despite many successful production elements, a winning cast delivering strong performances, and excellent dialogue and characterization from writer Mamet, American Buffalo ultimately doesn't feel fully successful. While there are elements of greatness within - most especially Hoffmann's performance - the quality of the filmmaking doesn't click in the way it should.

The Blu-ray:


American Buffalo arrives on Blu-ray with a 1080p MPEG-4 AVC High Definition presentation in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 widescreen. The presentation is sharp and detailed with accurate looking color-reproduction. The film was shot on 35mm film stock and retains an enjoyably filmic quality. There are no issues with DNR on the image. While the image may look a tad dark in terms of the cinematography, it seems to appear exactly as it should on this well-realized Blu-ray release with a good encoding of the film.


Don't expect a dynamic audio presentation from American Buffalo. The film is almost entirely dialogue-focused with little in the way of sound effects or other audio interspersing into the presentation. The score composed by Thomas Newman (American Beauty, Finding Nemo) is actually rather quiet and is sparingly used throughout the film. The focus is almost entirely on the actors exchanges. This is exactly as one might expect given Mamet's theatrical background and the adaptation process Mamet utilized when going from play to film.

The good news is that the lossless 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio presentation cleanly presents the audio track with noteworthy dialogue reproduction which makes these dialogue exchanges crisp and easy to understand. Fans and audio enthusiasts will be pleased with the accurately-reproduced presentation quality.

Optional English SDH subtitles (for the deaf and hard of hearing) are provided.


The release includes a small selection of supplements. The primary extra is the inclusion of the isolated score track (presented in DTS-HD MA). The release also includes audio commentary by film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, a booklet featuring an essay written by Julie Kirgo, and the original theatrical trailer for American Buffalo.

Final Thoughts:

American Buffalo is less successful than other efforts by acclaimed writer/director David Mamet (who based the script for this film on his popular play). The film feels too theatrical and doesn't have enough distinctive cinematic flair to work as effectively as one might expect. Even so, the film is worth checking out for fans of Mamet.

American Buffalo contains excellent performances by Dustin Hoffmann, Dennis Franz, and Sean Nelson. See it for the performances and for Mamet's dialogue and characterizations. While the film doesn't seem to work as well as it should, it's still an interesting effort with some quality attributes. Recommended.

Neil Lumbard is a lifelong fan of cinema. He aspires to make movies and has written two screenplays on spec. He loves writing, and currently does in Texas.







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