In a faithful rendering of the Paul Auster novel, Jim, a former fireman is drifting across America, living off an inheritance. On the road he meets professional gambler Jack, who convinces him to back him in a poker game with two wealthy old men. When he unexpectedly loses, the men are forced to work off their debts by building an enormous wall.
When it comes to intriguing cinematic subjects, two blokes building a wall in someone's back garden hardly has its hand straining to get round your throat. Yet, so deftly staged and wonderfully acted is this adaptation of Paul Auster's deeply weird and, one would have thought, unfilmable novel about the paying off of a gambling debt, that it never lets up for an instant.
The story concerns James Nashe (Patinkin) and Jack Pozzi (Spader) a drifter and a grifter thrown together when Nashe, motoring along a road to nowhere, living off the remnants of a small inheritance, picks up battered Pozzi, a professional gambler, who proceeds to bend his ear with the tale of a "sure thing" a poker game against two gullible old millionaires (Durning and Grey) with money to burn.
In a rash act of benevolence Nashe backs Pozzi to the tune of $10,000 and soon the pair are at the Pennsylvanian mansion of their Laurel and Hardy-ish opponents, the plan going horribly wrong as the odd couple freshly tutored by a Vegas card sharp not only take Pozzi to the cleaners but also win everything Nashe owns.
And this is where it all gets rather odd with the losers having to comply with the old men's rather bizarre predestinarian philosophy about the order of life and "rediscover their goodness through hard work" by becoming sort of de facto slaves, holed up in a caravan and forced to build, in Sisyphus fashion, a seemingly pointless wall in the grounds of the residence.
Various interesting characters shuffle on and off this canvas including Samantha Mathis' hooker and podgy bully boy Chris Penn (who else?) while the proceedings are overseen by curmudgeonly taskmaster Calvin (Walsh), but it is the performances of the lead players that elevates this to something quite extraordinary. Buoyed with a sense of purpose the lynchpin Patinkin, for whom the wall becomes a source of Bridge On The River Kwai-like pride, is a model of patience and honour, while Spader is outstanding as the spivvy greaseball Jack, good company but lacking the will-power of his companion even as their destiny lies ever more at the mercy of their sinister captors.
The end result is a film that is both highly original and compelling.