Movie Review: Homicide

1991.  Starring Joe Mantegna and William H. Macy. Written and Directed by David Mamet.

I may have forgotten when I put Homicide on my Netflix list that it was written and directed by David Mamet. I knew that it was a new release from The Criterion Collection, and there are few films among them not worth watching. And I knew it starred Joe Mantegna, who also starred in House of Games, a particular favorite of mine, also released by Criterion. But I should have realized that Homicide, like House of Games, was written and directed by Mamet, and it always takes me a while to warm up to his films.

Mamet, any movie review will feel the need to remind you, is primarily a playwright, and in doing so prepares you for the awkward, stilted dialogue so packed together and overlapping and filled with unlikely statements and responses that it will seem like a dubbed foreign film or filmed amateur performance. Characters in his films either speak with no emotion, rapid-fire and without subtlety, or they over-react, with stagy conversation and what seems like a clumsy delivery. Of course it’s not. These are great actors, and wouldn’t turn in such a performance, unless directed to in pursuit of the director’s particular style.

I’m not saying that Homicide is a bad film; it may be a difficult one. You can’t spend half of the film acclimating yourself to Mamet’s rhythm — the distraction will lead you to miss the development of the story. Try watching Glengarry Glen Ross a week before watching this. It’s a great film, absorbing, with a few enormous roles that typify Mamet’s style. Alec Baldwin and Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon turn in iconic performances, not to mention Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey and Alan Arkin. . .

Anyway, I was talking about Homicide.

Mantegna plays Bobby Gold, a Jewish homicide detective — always “the first through the door” despite his assignment as a hostage negotiator, which his cop buddies seem to regard as a weak role. He’s partnered with Tim Sullivan (William H. Macy) on a high-profile case to track down a cop killer after the FBI has struck out. The pair have the inside track on the fugitive, thanks to a prior case, and are ordered to close the case as soon as possible. Before they can check on their inside contact, Gold gets reassigned to the case of an elderly Jewish woman’s murder in her black-neighborhood candy shop. Gold begs to pass on the case, which he believes is a simple robbery, but is ordered to change his priorities, and believes that “downtown” Jewish powers are getting in the way of his policework.

There’s enough internal conflict here to cause spontaneous combustion. Gold is reminded by the family of the murdered shopkeeper that he’s Jewish and has an obligation to respect the culture and know his history, and is reminded by fellow police officers that his obligation is to his professional oath and his partner. He feels like an outsider, a man without a country, an officer valued in his unit because he understands how the fugitive feels. He faces the question of “Who am I?” with every turn in the case.

While investigating a reported gunshot at the home of the shopkeeper’s family, he finds evidence that causes him to believe that the murder was a hate crime and leads him to a shadowy group of Jewish anti-fascist fighters, and forces him to confront a few unresolved issues about his identity. I have to admit that this is where Homicide lost my interest for a while.

But don’t let it shake you off the trail. There’s something about the internal struggle that drives Mantegna’s character and changes the usual police procedural into an existential sleepless night for Detective Gold. Mamet is pulling the strings all along, like a good playwright should, and you’ll want to watch Homicide until the final shots are fired, the cards are turned over and the case is wrapped up. At the end, the missing piece changes the entire subject of the puzzle.

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