Movie Review – Homicide (1991)

by NIR SHALEV

Screenwriter, director and playwright David Mamet belongs to the group of auteurs, members including Werner Herzog, Terry Gilliam, and Jean-Luc Godard, whose work you either love or hate. I’ve watched all of Mamet’s films, both those he directed and those based on his original screenplays and stage plays, and liked them all. Some of them I love. Homicide is a movie that I love.

Homicide detective Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna) and his partner Tim Sullivan (William H. Macy) are on a long crusade to find and bring to justice a known drug dealer and cop killer. As the film opens we are witness to a demonstration from a S.W.A.T. squad, showcasing what they do best by quietly, and in the dark, placing shape charges to a door frame and blowing it. They enter the apartment and fire at whoever fires back at them. But alas, behind the closet in one of the rooms is a large hole in the wall and we understand that the main “bad guy” had managed to escape.

Later at a police station, following a lot of Mamet’s famous dialogue (more on that later) we hear that an arrested criminal had killed his wife and child hoping to “save them.” The criminal then forcefully frees himself from his captors and lunges at Gold, tackling him to the ground. He steals Gold’s pistol but quicker than he can stand up his plans are thwarted. When asked why he stole the gun he replies, “I wanted to kill myself.” Gold observes that his holster strap had been ripped and blames the criminal. He feels that it was a personal attack. He yells at him, “Look what you did! You ripped my holster! What the $%^& did I ever do to you?!” The criminal apologizes and the audience understands what it’s like to watch a Mamet film or play.

The real plot of the film begins with Gold and Sullivan arriving at the scene of a crime that they weren’t on call for. There was a robbery and the homicide of an elderly woman in her own candy store. Bystanders claim that it’s because she’s Jewish and has a fortune in her basement. Gold is eventually taken off the case he’d been working on for months and is transferred to the case of the dead Jew in the candy store, because he caught the case and because he’s also Jewish. He meets with the family and is eventually called to their gigantic downtown apartment because they believe that a shot was fired at them from a nearby rooftop and that they saw a man on that rooftop. To accentuate the theme of the film, during a conversation Gold has on the family’s house phone with his partner Sullivan he exclaims that he can’t believe the size of the apartment. He blames it on the taxes, exclaims other anti-Semitic remarks and then says, “Hey! They’re not my people, #$%^ them!” As he hangs up the phone he sees that the old Jewish woman’s granddaughter was sitting in that room with him all along. She then questions his perception of himself as a Jewish person instead of simply being a cop. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, acting, and direction and the whole film has loads of surprises like that.

After Gold is verbally crucified, he begins to wonder why he’d never thought of himself as a Jew. He confesses later in the film to female character that as he was growing up he was unpopular because of the fact that he was a Jew. As a police officer he was never taken seriously and was placed on the force as a negotiator, due to his uncanny ability to talk sense into people; his nicknames are “the orator” and “the mouthpiece.” He believes that between he and his partner, he’s always the first one through the door because of a psychological need to be better than others see him. It’s a very philosophically themed film and Mamet’s dialogue assists it every step of the way.

Joe Mantegna is a good actor and in this film he’s great. In a Mamet film the actors often sound like they’re performing on stage but in this film there’s a sort of realism to the way characters speak and Mantegna gives the best of the performances. Gold is most honest when he’s performing his job. When he’s talking down a crazed older woman he sounds sincere and the look on his face shows that he cares. Then Mamet shows us the other cops in the room as they smile, knowing just how good Gold is at his job. Almost like a con game, a game of fake trust. It’s quite ironic.

William H. Macy is also great in the film. His character of Sullivan is the cool cop, the cop with the right lingo and all the right expressions and cliches. His timing is excellent, almost comic and he’s greatly entertaining to listen to. Mamet’s wife Rebecca Pidgeon plays Miss Klein, the granddaughter and she too sounds sincere with every word. She plays it humble and quiet.

Now, David Mamet’s dialogue is a character all its own. It’s present during all of his films and plays and is essential to the themes provided in the screenplays. It’s also a ton of fun to listen to and is also very fake. Characters stammer and repeat themselves; sometimes they spew cliches where intelligent conversation should take place. However the cliches and one-liners are entirely character driven and are spoken properly only through those that are supposed to speak them. It’s a little difficult to explain it but works wonderfully on screen.

The topic of racism and prejudice flows throughout this film like water spewing out of faucet into a sink that’s plugged. They’re always present and are some of the main aspects that all of the characters embody. Blacks call Jews by the derogatory K-word and all others call blacks by the N-word but it fits the environment and characters and is not condescending to the audience, it’s simply a state of being. It belongs to the universe adherent to Mamet’s character’s logic and screenwriting style.

There’s also a ton of coarse language throughout Mamet’s films and plays. He’s been heard saying, “I don’t make movies that one should take their mothers to see.” It’s true but my mom did like his films Heist (2001) and Spartan (2004) and didn’t complain about the incessant coarse language; it simply seems to fit.

I love that the theme of Homicide is finding oneself. Whether the protagonist is a Jew, Christian, Muslin, or simply the embodiment of an absolute jerk the theme always reverts to having to look back onto one’s roots in order to truly understand who we are in relation to those around us. Only then can one find one’s proper place on this Earth. Bobby Gold is a cop who can talk sense into an earthquake but just because he’s good at it doesn’t necessarily mean that he was genetically predisposed to make it his life’s ambition to become a negotiator. Jews have historically been cast as great shysters but those cliches are used uniquely as cliches in this film and, therefore it’s not racist of Mamet to make Bobby Gold into a negotiator just because he’s a Jew. It’s simply how others around him perceive him and his place on Earth.

This is a well directed, well shot and well acted film. The screenplay leaves nothing hanging, no loose ends. There is a distinct beginning, middle and end to the plot and Gold’s character arc is easily and suitably discernible. This is an early Mamet but a great one and I recommend that others find it and experience it. The Criterion Collection found it important enough to release and preserve and I agree with them wholeheartedly.

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Possibly Related Posts: (Commentary Track generated)

David Mamet’s most recent film is Redbelt. Read Geoff’s and Helen’s reviews.

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