Criterion // 1991 // 101 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // September 8th, 2009
Bob Gold is a cop. A good cop. But tonight, he will betray his friends, disgrace the force, and commit an act of violence because he believes it is the only right thing to do.
"Oh God help me, help me...what have you done to me?"
Police Detective Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna, House of Games) is in the middle of investigating a big murder case. He and his partner Tim (William H. Macy, Fargo) are searching for a very dangerous killer named Randolph (Ving Rhames, Pulp Fiction). Despite the fact that they are making considerable progress, Bobby is taken off the case and assigned to investigate the murder of an elderly Jewish woman. Bobby is initially very angry about being assigned to what he regards as a lesser case, but soon becomes intrigued by the peculiar details surrounding the woman's murder. The family members of the victim are convinced that the murder is only a small part of a vast anti-Semitic conspiracy. Bobby is skeptical about such a claim, but he is surprised to discover that the case is causing him to re-examine his own identity as a Jewish man.
I've been a big David Mamet fan for a long time. Glengarry Glen Ross was my first Mamet-written film, and like many others, I found the profane eloquence of the language used in that film nothing short of fascinating. I've seen nearly every film written and/or directed by Mamet over the years, and I've rarely been let down by the man. Homicide was the last Mamet film I hadn't seen, so I was quite excited to hear that it was getting a Region 1 DVD release courtesy of the Criterion Collection. How on Earth could a film written and directed by David Mamet go so very long without being made available on DVD in the U.S.? Surely it must be one of Mamet's lesser works; an obscure footnote in comparison to his more prestigious outings?
Nothing could be further from the truth. Homicide is Grade-A Mamet, in some ways one of his most complex and challenging works. It begins as a seemingly typical Mamet crime film, with Mamet pros Joe Mantegna and William H. Macy delivering that sort of foul-mouthed, carefully measured, intensely engaging dialogue that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of Mamet's writing. The viewer smiles and settles in for a fun Mametian thriller full of twists, turns, and betrayals galore. To be sure, there's another con game at work, but this time the audience member is the one being conned. Mamet convinces us that we're watching a crime thriller until we suddenly realize that what we've actually been watching this entire time is a deeply introspective journey of personal discovery. The crime aspect is merely the gateway to the real meat of the film.
There is a key moment when Bobby is inside the home of the elderly woman's family. He's using their telephone to make a call. He's grown frustrated with what he perceives to be the family's preposterous conspiracy theories, and unleashes a torrent of gleefully spiteful insults toward these seemingly crazy Jewish people. Only when he finishes his call does he realize that the woman's adult granddaughter (Rebecca Pidgeon, The Spanish Prisoner) has been sitting in the room the entire time, listening to every word. Suddenly a look of deep shame comes across Bobby's face, as he seemingly recognizes for the very first time just how deep his self-loathing truly is. It's the very beginning of a brutal internal debate as Bobby attempts to determine whether his true loyalties lie with his fellow police officers or with his heritage. I would never dream of spoiling what happens in this film, but suffice it to say that Bobby (and by default, the audience) will have the rug pulled out from beneath him more than once. When the film reaches its conclusion, one can't help but feel an aching, sinking sensation in the pit of their stomach.
Mantegna has done some of his best work for Mamet, and this is quite possibly the very best of those performances. Of course, he is superb at delivering that trademark Mamet dialogue (as pleasurable to listen to as ever in this film), but in Homicide many of his most important moments feature very few words. The role of Bobby Gold is one in which the actor must convey a lot with facial expressions and understated body language, and Mantegna kills every important moment. It's Oscar-worthy stuff. William H. Macy also has several fine moments as Mantegna's partner, and it's a pleasure to see other Mamet regulars like J.J. Johnston, Ricky Jay, Jack Wallace and Rebecca Pidgeon (a very fine actress who has been subjected to far too much unfair criticism over the years) in supporting parts. Ving Rhames only has a few minutes of screen time, but his scene with Mantegna is one of the film's best.
Criterion's transfer is good if somewhat short of great. For a film made in the 1990s, the film looks a bit too washed-out at times, and the darker scenes occasionally lack definition. Otherwise, this is a clean and stellar picture, offering exceptionally warm and accurate flesh tones and a satisfactory level of detail. Mamet is a director who tends to prefer a pretty straightforward style of cinematography, but Roger Deakins does some very elegant work that places this film alongside Redbelt as one of Mamet's most purely cinematic efforts. The stereo sound is quite effective, particularly in terms of the aching score by Alaric Jans. The gunfire is a bit too loud at times in contrast to everything else, so you may want to keep the remote handy, but otherwise I have no complaints.
Extras are slightly less generous than a top-drawer Criterion release but still of considerable quality. David Mamet and William H. Macy provide an audio commentary that is immensely engaging but also a tad disappointing. They spend a lot of time telling stories from the set, offering trivia, and reminiscing about working with friends and family members over the years. As I said, it's a good listen, but I would have preferred a bit more analysis of the actual film for a movie as thematically rich as Homicide. Perhaps Mamet just isn't interested in spelling out all of his intentions. Still, it's clear that this is a special film for both men. "I don't know if I could ever make a movie that good again," Mamet admits. There's also a 21-minute featurette that offers interviews with Ricky Jay, Steven Goldstein, J.J. Johnston, Joe Mantegna, and Jack Wallace that is well worth checking out. Finally, you get a six-minute gag reel, some television trailers and a booklet featuring a great essay by Stuart Klawans.
Criterion's DVD release may be a bit less remarkable than usual for the company, but it's still impressive by any other standard. Regardless, Mamet's Homicide is essential viewing for those even remotely interested in the writer/director's work, and now that it's finally available stateside you have no excuse not to check it out. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Gag Reel
* TV Spots