A fresh appraisal of David Mamet the filmmaker—as opposed to the playwright, novelist, essayist, or polemicist, which each present a whole other can of worms—prompts one to wonder if, as some seem to think, he really has lost his touch; if he’s honing and deepening his art, as at least his die-hard admirers think; or if in fact he is and has always been an acquired taste, which I suspect is closer to the truth. After finally seeing Homicide (1991), Mamet’s third feature, now available from the Criterion Collection, I’m struck by just how stubbornly adherent to the same approach to narrative and style Mamet’s films have remained. Speaking as one of the few people I know who actually liked the embracing of classical Hollywood artifice and stoic machismo of Redbelt (08), I see this body of work as less varied, or variable, than its often made out to be.
Anyone who knows anything about Mamet knows something about Mametspeak, that deliberately repetitive, fragmented, something wildly cryptic form of verbal exchange that pushes naturalism so far that it becomes abstract and flamboyantly stylized. People don’t actually talk like this, but there isn’t a word spoken in Mamet that isn’t drawn from the eccentricities of real talk. Over the years I’ve found this defining aspect of Mamet’s work less rewarding, at least not as rewarding as other aspects. Though mapped out in big, alternating blocks of silence and often over-heated patter, I’d suggest that Homicide’s real strengths, as with a lot of Mamet, lie more in story and theme, in engrossing complications that finally lead to simple conclusions. Simple, but not stupid. This is a movie about cops and criminals doing what cops and criminals do, about taking sides, about tit-for-tat acts of violence. But then again, maybe it’s not about any of these things. Maybe it’s about the same thing nearly all Mamet stories seem to be about, something to do with how the road to integrity gets narrower and lonelier the further you follow it, to the degree that even those who directed you down the road in the first place turn out to be false allies. It’s a world-view that can seem either bleak or existentially freeing.
Detective Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna), the protagonist of Homicide is, to be sure, a talker. He’s the resident hostage negotiator. His colleagues refer to him as the Orator. They depend on him when dealing with people in need of convincing. It’s not that he has some unusual style of speech but rather that he’s so eloquently plainspoken. Somehow this connects to Bobby’s being a Jew, something he’s worked hard to erase from his persona—he grew up being disparaged for his race and just wants to be a cop now, and a good one. He’s always the first to enter a door when danger could lie on the other side. Though his reputation is solid some part of him is always trying to prove himself. He and his partner Sully (William H. Macy, with a big-ass moustache) are supposed to track down a cop-killer (Ving Rhames) who slipped through the FBI’s fingers, but chance steps in and shoves Bobby onto another case. An old lady was killed behind the counter of her convenience store. The locals say its because she had some legendary treasure hidden in the basement. Bobby wants to shake it off, but his superiors demand he attend to it. Partially because the grieving family is wealthy and influential. Partially because they’re Jews.
Bobby’s journey is founded in identity crisis. It takes him from disdain for his own Jewish heritage to an all-consuming longing to belong to a community with deeper roots and a more profound cause than that of the police, who Bobby refers to as “the garbage men”; he goes from audaciously insulting the family of the murdered woman to desperately trying to penetrate their secret world of retaliation against the quiet but very active forces of violent anti-Semitism surrounding them; he goes from loathing what he sees as a Jewish persecution complex to realizing the conspiracy against them seems all too real. But without spoiling too much of what follows, Homicide comes to reveal that blood ties are never what they’re built up to be, that the only family worth trusting is the one you build, that those who seems closest to you are perfectly capable and actually far better equipped to fuck you over. We meet a man who killed his wife and children. We meet a mother talked into trapping her own son. And we meet Bobby, searching for meaning through connection to his ostensible People, only to find himself increasingly isolated and ill-prepared to take care of himself or his work—and early scene in which something as seemingly minor as a torn holster strap pays off in that old-fashioned dramaturgical way that Mamet has such enduring affection for. So Homicide is a lesson in noir, and for the most part about as good as Mamet gets. And I think if you watch it and (re-)try his later, less celebrated films—The Spanish Prisoner (97) anyone?—you might find the through-line has more consistency and integrity than naysayers claim.