Film Reviews

Homicide David Mamet

Rating - 8/10

Defining David Mamet's "urban odyssey" Homicide (1991) is confrontation of an identity crisis that mirrors its leading character's own quest for ethnic and occupational recognition.  Mamet's clever deception and signature "Mametspeak" (or eloquent vernacular of cuss words) promotes the narrative as a hard-boiled masculine crime drama with comedic overtones, but it slowly retreats and opens into multidimensional philosophical and poetic mystery about a hostage negotiator, Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna), torn between allegiance to the fraternity of policemen and the increasing clutch of his Jewish ancestry.  While the film may seem divisive and scattershot by this categorization, the cohesive directing methods and entertaining characters lure one into equal parts of religious mysticism, race relations, and the traditionally investigative world of crime.  The portrait of Detective Gold is also split in prospective focus; while the sense of belonging to a communal group is emphasized strongly throughout, the journey of the hero supersedes the necessity of complete resolution.  To complement the portrait of the main character, events in the film often prompt inquiries surrounding the ambiguity of life and the search for an identity rather than recognizing clear-cut definitions of good and evil as well as right and wrong.   Akin to other films of its kind, Homicide is a documentation of a series of events involving murder cases, but Mamet subtly manipulates their intrigue and inherent correlation.  Everything is potentially dubious within human perception and the subjectivity or nonexistence of archetypal forces.

To appeal to the film's developing philosophy and mysticism in its more traditional first act, Homicide introduces a brief discussion of the 'problem of evil' by an arrested man named Walter B. Wells, who is charged with killing his wife and kids.  After Gold is unduly kind and tolerant to the man prior to his attempts to steal the detective's gun, Wells assumes a bargaining position and attempts to appeal to his idealistic side.  "Would you like to how to solve the problem of evil?"  Wells utters.  While Gold coolly responds, "No, man, 'cause if I did, I'd be out of a job," to elicit a sense of humor amidst the intensity of the surrounding events, Mamet's script overtly reaches for recognition and approval along the boundaries of the traditional movie-going audience.  While Wells lacks a profound connection to the religious and ethnic aspects of the film, he is the seed of their growth, strangely generating a maddening religious fervor for the leading man.  The 'problem of evil' (of which Wells speaks) is often identified with the logical explanation of moral and natural evils as means to deny or refute the existence of a supreme deity or god.  Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher, is commonly associated with formulation of the logic, but the issue extends into the realm of free will and evidential versions by William Rowe, which are only loosely applicable to the film.  With regards to Wells' small role, perhaps he is an intentionally stunted 'angel or devil on the shoulder'; instead of significantly influencing Gold, he is demoted to mere cameos, never given the opportunity to win an influential conversation.  However, he additionally spurs the intersection and interconnection of racial and religious politics, because it is the Jews who assume defining roles in the film, usurping the criminals and law enforcement in Gold's mind.  It's this facet that provides Homicide with a strong identity (while Gold struggles with his own) to distinguish it from other crime dramas.

Midway through the film's commentary track, Mamet discusses key elements to its conception and general filmmaking and playwriting methods.  Homicide is a demonstration of the relationship between fate and coincidence and the separate or transposable definitions of those terms.  He says, "As the hero gets drawn farther and farther into the story, he's less and less inclined to write off things to coincidence; he starts to perceive a pattern, which is what we all do in life."  This is the foundation of the film's enthrallment; even if there isn't an inherently logical explanation to a series of episodes surrounding a murdered elderly Jewish owner of a candy store, Detective Gold constantly searches for defining answers within the victim's family's proposed suspicions.  In fact, Gold's uncertainty manifests in his pleas for reassurance, notably to his partner, Tim Sullivan (William H. Macy).  "What does it mean?" he asks in a perplexed preoccupation.  "Sully" is too involved with the upcoming setup of a drug dealer and serial murderer to seriously consider his partner's troubles.  "It don't mean nothing.  Some broad got killed.  She's dead now.  Okay? " he bluntly relays.  As Gold scrambles to find answers, retreating deeper into the labyrinth of a secret Jewish sect while ignoring his duties as a police officer, he discovers a Tommy Gun receipt in the basement of the deceased Jewish woman's house, a torn scrap of paper on the family's rooftop after an ambiguous gunshot and mysterious encounter, and even Nazi paraphernalia in a local model train shop.  Ultimately, as he loses grasp on another case and focus on logical events, the film seems to underscore the notion of Ockham's Razor ("entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity").  In layman's terms for the character of Gold, this translates to realizing the simplest explanation to the crime as the correct one.  This looming concept, even in the most heated circumstances, provides Homicide with a sense of humor and further sympathy for Detective Gold as a determined man set to rectify his own self-hatred of his Jewish roots.  Lured into a realm beyond his own immediate awareness, he becomes stranded between the English language of his occupational circle and Hebrew of his budding ethnic consciousness.

As the barrier between English and Yiddish alienates Bobby Gold from a sense of belonging to the Jewish community, Mamet's unique language is a source of tension.  From the racial epithets to the hyper-realized dialogue, language is central to this world of the film, extended further by Gold's job as a hostage negotiator.  Stuart Klawan's essay for Criterion Collection entitled "What Are You, Then?" proposes:

(Gold's) crisis might be classified as just an aggravated case of sociolinguistics – the enforcement of group identity through verbal codes – but to Gold, there's nothing academic about his problem.  It's been clear since the start of the film that social affiliations are fundamental in his world...  To function, Gold needs to know what he belongs to.

In the opening scenes, Gold is scolded by a black superior, Mr. Patterson, as the two exchange hostile words and racial slurs regarding Gold's supposed commitments.  Like Walter B. Wells and his allusions to religion, this incident initiates the prominence of race as a theme in terms of identification, allegiances, and purpose.  As the film is heavily fixated on the identity of a Jewish individual, Homicide seems to be at least a partial inspiration to Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man (2009) where a suburban middle-class teacher experiences a midlife crisis in his Jewish community in the late 1960s.  While Homicide occurs at the beginning of the '90s, the film demonstrates that little has changed in the journey to self-discovery.  However, Mamet's venture successfully rewards the unorthodox viewer with a straightforward crime drama that unfurls into a ripe philosophical enigma even beyond Gold's final realizations.