Friday, November 6, 2009

Review – Homicide

November 6, 2009

Homicide – U.S., 1991

The success of David Mamet’s film Homicide possibly rests on the audience’s ability to retain interest in the film after the film’s lead character Detective Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna) makes a very questionable decision. The decision is to vigorously investigate the identity of a mysterious man on the roof of a murdered woman’s son. Ordinarily such a decision makes perfect sense, but in this case, there does not appear to be any reasonable cause to suspect a connection between the man and the slain woman. However, the grieving son is adamant that someone shot at his family, and so despite the fact that there is no physical evidence that such an attempt was ever made, Detective Gold goes up to the roof to investigate. There he finds no tangible evidence to support the family’s claims that their lives are in danger. All he finds is a room full of pigeons and a folded up piece of paper with the letters GROFAZ written on it. And yet his investigation continues, and as it does, it grows in intensity, reaching a point at which Gold himself is capable of taking the law into his own hands. The problem is that when it comes to the case he is trying to solve, there’s no evidence out there just waiting to be found and no massive conspiracy lingering around for him to expose. And perhaps more importantly, the audience knows this.

Mamet’s film takes place on the gritty streets of Baltimore. It is a place rife with distrust and misconceptions. When Detective Gold first arrives on the scene of Mrs. Klein’s murder – which it should be said, he does so quite by accident - he is told by numerous residents that the victim was killed for the massive fortune she supposedly kept in her basement. Logic dictates that an elderly woman would not keep money in such a place, but as often happens when people cling to stereotypes, logic is ignored – the deceased was Jewish, Jews have money, and therefore, she must have keep it in the basement and been killed for it. Later an African-American police officer will even suggest that Mrs. Klein’s murder was her fault, for she had the nerve to move into a predominately African-American neighborhood.

Mamet does not limit stereotypes and misconceptions to the areas’ African-American residents. In addition to the discomfort that some in the Jewish community have toward its African-American neighbors, there are the discomforting sentiments expressed by some in the homicide division of the Baltimore Police Department. The men we meet from this division are apparently so comfortable with each other that they can refer to each other in ways that would make their mothers either blush or boil with rage. They playfully throw around derogatory terms as if they were common everyday greetings. Early in the film, though, we see that it’s not what someone says but who in fact says it. In such an open environment, it’s not uncommon to hear suspects and witnesses referred to in terms that one would hope were not uttered by those whose job it is to serve and protect. The officers that make up this division all seem to be wishing for that one great case that will makes them famous, that one criminal so diabolical that his apprehension will make those that caught him the toast of the town. In short, they’ve been waiting for Randolph Sims, a man wanted for killing two cops. It is that case that Detective Gold’s partner Tim Sullivan (William H. Macy) advises he focus on, even going so far as to call Mrs. Klein’s murder a “candy store pop” and recommending he just “sit on [the case].” Gold discovers, much to his own surprise, that he can’t.

Homicide takes viewers into a world they rarely see, and we should be grateful for that. In Homicide, we see a neighborhood divided as a result of people’s willingness to cling to stereotypes as if they were hard facts. We see a community that not only believes it is under attack from an all-too invisible enemy but has also amassed a cache of weapons to protect themselves in case that attack occurs. Gold is skeptical at first. “It’s always a fantasy,” he tells someone early on. He’ll be telling them something else later, but not for the reasons one would suspect.

All of this is interesting enough, and yet, as the film progressed, I found myself losing interest slightly because I sensed a futility in Gold’s outward journey. The reason for this feeling can be traced back to the unknown man on the roof. I simply could not entertain the notion that the man was somehow tied to a larger plot, and without such an impression, I grew impatient when Gold questioned people I knew deep down had nothing to do with either of his cases. There will no doubt be some that say that Homicide is not really about either of the two cases, that it is in fact about Gold’s journey of self discovery. This is certainly a possibility. I suppose it could also be said that Homicide is about a man whose personal quests, both for justice and for personal gain, lead to tragedy. However, for me, a film like Homicide must have a level of suspense to it, and for most of the film, I simply didn’t feel it did. Of course, the film ends well. It has to. It’s a cop film, and most cop films end with an obligatory gun battle or a confrontation between the hero and the villain. With Homicide, the audience is spoiled. They get both. They even get a resolution to the other case, and yet here the movie once again disappoints, for who else was the killer going to be? After all, there weren’t that many characters left for Mamet to choose from. (on DVD from the Criterion Collection)

3 stars

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