- Rated R
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Bob Westal
avid Mamet’s third film starts out exactly like the Mamet cop movie you think you want to see – a detailed, literate, and darkly funny police procedural. But what begins like a sort of dry run for the classic ‘90s TV series, “Homicide: Life on the Street,” right down to its Baltimore locations, becomes a somber examination of the meaning of being Jewish in modern America and, more broadly, the dangers of excessive identity politics. Indeed, the warning the film delivers about the dangerous side of ethnic identity is so stark that it’s easy to wonder whether the Mamet of today – a stridently outspoken observant Jew and a self-outed conservative – wouldn’t have written a different story entirely.
“Homicide” stars the man I still consider the ultimate Mamet actor, Joe Mantegna, as Bobby Gold, a homicide detective who specializes in negotiating with suspects. We later learn, however, that the specialty might not have been entirely by choice because Officer Gold has something to prove. Being Jewish, he’s had to deal with an assumption that he is a soft and unphysical nebbish, so proving his toughness by being “first in the door” is a must and being assumed to have the gift of gab is almost a plus. (Almost everyone in a Mamet production has that gift, in any case.) Moreover, perhaps because he’s had to deal with a fair amount of abuse his whole life because of his identity, he seems to have internalized the bigotry and become a real-life version of a frequent mythological figure in intra-Jewish political battles – the “self-hating Jew.”
Gold’s issues with his ethnicity would only be background if he and his partner and best friend, Tim Sullivan (William H. Macy in his first leading role), were allowed to complete their primary case. They are simply supposed to track down a cop killer on the run (Ving Rhames) by persuading his loving mother (Mary Jefferson) to turn him in. However, it’s Gold’s horrendous luck to “catch” a second case, the murder of an elderly female storeowner and member of a shadowy but well off and well-connected Orthodox Jewish community. The woman’s relatives insist that Gold handle the case and that the murder is not a simple robbery gone wrong, but somehow related to neo-Nazis. The thing is, what this collection of highly committed Zionists is up to may not be entirely kosher either, though one could argue about the motivation – except that we never really learn what it is.
Explaining why I’m spending Jewish New Year struggling with this movie might be hard for some to understand. Non-Jews are sometimes unaware that being Jewish is not like being Presbyterian, Methodist or Episcopalian. It’s more like being Irish-Catholic, but only in the sense that you can stop being a believing Catholic, but you can’t stop being Irish. The confusing part is that we call both the religious and the ethnic group by the same word: “Jews.”
Still, everyone’s experience of these matters is going to be different. Like Mamet, one side of my family is from Chicago, but I grew up in a very different time and place than he did. I can honestly say that I can’t think of a single incident where I believe I was discriminated against or bothered by anyone because of being Jewish. Mamet says he had to flee being beat up, or fight back, regularly because he was Jewish. That may make the difference between my more relaxed version of ethnic identity (he’d probably say “lax”) and his eventual embrace of an observant form of Judaism and a hard-line stance on Israel.
That brings us back to the film and to the frequently quoted, and definitely key, moment where Gold the investigator consults a theological scholar (Alan Polonsky) who shows him some Hebrew text. When Gold admits he can’t read it, he says, “You say you’re a Jew, and you can’t read Hebrew. What are you, then?” Gold has no answer. However, If I were Gold, I would have an answer ready: “I am a cop. I am also a Hebrew school dropout and I am working on a fucking murder. Now tell me what the fuck it says.” Let’s just say I dislike people trying to put me into a certain kind of box because I happen to be descended from this particular group. Also, I’ve thought these things through a little.
Bobby Gold’s tragedy, however, is that he hasn’t. When the policeman confronts a group of Jews with a strong sense of identity for apparently the first time in his life, he’s emotionally and intellectually helpless. Worse, as an actual self-hating Jew, but not a complete moron, he has to admit to himself he’s been wrong, and self-defeatingly so.
This brings us to the other key scene that comes a bit later when Gold says something terrible and revealing while speaking to a brother cop on the phone: “Hey, not my people, baby. Fuck ‘em. There’s so much anti-Semitism the last four thousand years, we must be doing something to bring it about.” Joe Mantegna originated the role of Ricky Roma in the stage version of “Glengarry Glen Ross” and Mamet has given him a number of great moments on film as well, but his attempt to maintain his composure after being caught speaking such hateful words by the victim’s granddaughter (Rebecca Pidgeon) is probably the most true-to-life depiction I’ve seen of pure shame. From this point on, something definitely changes within Gold. What’s interesting, and what makes this film worth arguing over, is that it’s not a change for the better.
In 2006, David Mamet wrote a book on anti-Semitism and Jewish self-hatred that I strongly suspect I’d be unable to get through ritualistically ripping it to shreds. He’s also abandoned the liberalism he’d sometimes espoused, though I’d long wondered about that based on certain aspects of his works. Knowing all this, and having written about Mamet’s purported ideological conversion last year, it’s hard for me to watch this film without a sort of ongoing mental argument with my personal version of Mamet. On the other hand, he’s far from the first artist I’ve admired with political and/or religious and social views antithetical to my own. Moreover, that’s probably laying much too much onto this little, 100-minute cop movie. Indeed, looking at the film on its face, give or take some easy swipes at the then hot topic of anti-Semitism by African-Americans, it’s far more humane and fair-minded than the Mamet of today and, I’m guessing, even the Mamet of 1991. I might disagree vehemently with the filmmaker, but I don’t really disagree with the film…I think.
Still, if you can forget all this mishegas, and whatever you make of its themes or its point of view, this is a very good movie. Like all Mamet-directed movies, it has the feeling of a high wire act. He is said to maintain a fun set, but he certainly works his actors hard, insisting they maintain the iambic rhythm of the blank verse he writes. The slightly stilted readings that result can be problematic at times but, more often, they add a degree of theatricality that adds to the drama. Like a lot of great artists, Mamet is not trying to make us forget we’re watching something that isn’t quite real.
It’s also great fun to see the members of his signature troop – Mantegna, William H. Macy, Pidgeon, stage magician turned actor Ricky Jay and other regulars. It’s also nice to seem some less Mamet-related faces including a very young Ving Rhames and an unheralded turn by television standby Natalia Nogulich as a shadowy woman, possibly a Mossad agent, who figures prominently in the story.
There’s no doubt about it: “Homicide” is an odd blend of police procedural with a morally ambiguous tale with bizarre echoes of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. There’s also no doubt that if I got into a serious conversation with David Mamet about religion, a shouting match would be the result. (And it would be a long one; what could be more Jewish?) But, there’s also little doubt in my mind that “Homicide” is pure Mamet in its uncut form, and that’s a pretty great thing.
Criterion Collection DVD Review:
Since this is a Criterion DVD, you know there’ll be something pretty special about the disc. For whatever reason, this movie seems perhaps too darkly lit at times, sometimes obscuring the work of A-1 cinematographer Roger Deakins, but that may have been on purpose. The reason I know that is because the disc contains a brand new commentary featuring Mamet and his onetime student, William H. Macy, reminiscing in mostly quite humorous fashion about the making of the film, during which Mamet compliments Deakins for not over-lighting the shots. The disc also contains a featurette on the making of the film, which includes Mamet, Macy, Joe Mantegna, and troop members J.J. Johnson, Vincent Guastaferro, and Ricky Jay commenting on the Mamet approach to making art. There is also a gag reel that is almost as funny as you might expect from a Mamet film. Also, for us wishy-washy liberal Jews, Stuart Klawans of the venerable left-of-center magazine, The Nation, has written a strong essay on “Homicide” which is included in a bonus booklet. Since this is a “director approved” disc, I’m glad to see that Mamet is open-minded enough to allow Klawans to discuss his work and the attendant politics so forthrightly.