Thursday, March 22, 2012

My Favorite Scene: Redbelt

Midway through David Mamet’s masterful, misunderstood film, Redbelt, Laura Black (a shy lawyer deeply scarred from a traumatic event suffered in her past) stops by Mike Terry’s dojo for a beginner’s lesson into the world of jui-jitsu. By this point in the film, Laura and Mike have met a few times, resulting in an amicable relationship among minor acquaintances.

Mike (played with effortless control by the remarkable Chiwetel Ejiofor) first instructs Laura (played by a shaken, flawless Emily Mortimer) to sit and meditate for a few moments. It’s important Mike says, to leave the outside, outside.

Laura’s not feeling it. She’s not into the philosophical psychobabble, so she very politely excuses herself from the lesson, and prepares to leave. After some subtle verbal probing from Mike, Laura let’s out her secret: that she was recently raped at knifepoint by a man twice her size. (The delivery of Mortimer’s confession, with her tired, annoyed voice, is heartbreaking.)
Ejiofor, with perfect, understanding control, listens to her story and quietly asserts that “there is no situation you cannot escape from.” Laura, still not buying into it, gathers her things and heads for the door.

And that’s when it happens.

Mike bum rushes her, grabs her from behind and holds a plastic knife to her throat. Pay attention here. Up until this point in the film, Laura has made it very clear that she does not like to be touched. Under any circumstance. So when Mike grabs her, the prolonged sigh of uncontrolled fear that Mortimer lets out is, perhaps, the single best action ever captured in a Mamet film.

Mike tells her not to move (there is a knife at her throat, after all), but then he does what he does best: he instructs.
He tells Laura to grab his arm and slowly drag it toward him. Now, move to the right and slowly move the knife closer toward him, Mike instructs. (By doing this, the victim has stealthily moved out of the way of the knife, possibly without the perpetrator even realizing.) Now, if Laura grabs the man’s arm (the arm holding the knife) she can thrust the blade into his left collarbone, which Mike demands Laura to do. And again. And again. And again, with every thrust of the plastic blade forcing an animalist roar from Mortimer.

Laura breaks free, and takes a few steps back, noticing one of Mike’s top students standing far off, silently observing. Laura sees the student, looks back at Mike and begins to gently weep.

Mike looks at her. “It’s all right,” he gently let’s out. “There’s no one here but the fighters.” He’s talking about himself and his student, sure, but he’s talking directly to Laura, for that is precisely what she is: a fighter.
In his director’s commentary for the film, David Mamet said this scene was supposed sum up 20 years of psychoanalysis in 20 seconds. And I couldn’t agree more. Sitting and talking about a brutal victimization has many benefits, but forcing yourself to be thrown directly into a similar situation… well, I can think of nothing more effective.

If you’ve been following this week closely, you know that I am an insatiable David Mamet fan. Knowing this, I assert with the upmost confidence that this one scene in Redbelt is the very finest sequence Mamet has ever put on film. It rocks me to the core everytime. Every. Time.

Previous installments of My Favorite Scene include:

The Week of Mamet:
Monday March 19
the Directors: David Mamet

Tuesday March 20
My Favorite Scene: House of Games

Wednesday March 21
In Character: William H. Macy

Friday March 23
The Mamet Awards

Sunday March 25 
Reader Idea Post


  1. Damn... good insight on what is an incredible scene to a very underrated film. I'm not really into David Mamet but I did enjoy that film.

  2. @thevoid99 Love that you dig this flick. Have you seen his other work at all? I feel that, in terms of cadence, Redbelt is one of the more Mamet-esque films he's done (which you either love or hate.) Point is, if you like Redbelt, maybe you'd like his other stuff...? I could be way off here though haha

  3. Wow, Ejiofor and Mortimer, two very underrated British actors. I've never even heard about this one but I should give it a shot. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

  4. Fantastic scene and excellent analysis. I love the relationship Laura and Mike have in this movie. If I recall correctly *bit of a spoiler here for anyone who hasn't seen the flick* when Mike comes across Laura at the competition at the end of the film, she slaps him. Although we don't hear their conversation I like to think Laura slapped Mike because he told her he had essentially stopped fighting. Student becomes the teacher sort of thing.

    And that final scene. I love scenes with spectacle, where a great crowd watches the action in the movie. Mamet made a great film here.

  5. @ruth My pleasure! Redbelt contains arguably my favorite performances by Ejiofor and Mortimer, so if you like them, you'll REALLY dig this flick.

  6. @Robert YES you wise motherfucker you. I too believe that's what the slap represents; remarkable moment.

    As for the final scene, I listened to Mamet's commentary on the DVD and I was stunned to find out that he took virtually no pleasure in filming the action sequences. He felt he was WAY out of his element. While that may be the case, the build-up that scene creates is epic. A very fine film indeed.

  7. @Alex Withrow

    The only other film of his I've seen yet I do like is Spartan which I thought was quite underrated considering what came out during that year.

  8. @thevoid99 I agree, I LOVE Spartan. Hugely underrated flick.

  9. What's great about Redbelt is that it didn't even need the fight scenes toward the end, it was already excellent.

    It was the icing on the cake.

  10. @Ty YES! Couldn't agree more - flick is seriously badass, and that final fight is so remarkable in its restraint.

  11. She returns the favor in the most familiar way, slapping him back in to reality, to the one fight he was intended to fight.