"Would you like to know how to solve the problem of evil?"
"No, man, ‘cause if I did, then I'd be out a job."
David Mamet is known primarily for his repetitive, Gatling dialogue, but with his third feature film "Homicide" (1991) he shows off his chops as a visual artist as well. The first scene of the movie tracks an FBI unit as the officers prepare to storm an apartment. The few words we hear are either incoherent or simple shouted commands: "FBI! Move! Open it!" Roger Deakins' camera sweeps through murky rooms lit mostly by the flashfire of machine guns. They take out everyone in the place except their target, Randolph (Ving Rhames) who escapes onto the first of many rooftops we will see through the movie.
Cut to a frenzied meeting of the Baltimore police department where we meet our protagonist Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna) and his partner Sully (William H. Macy). It's a room full of snarling alpha males each jockeying for position. The ensuing scenes play like a parody of all the snarling alpha male cop movies we've seen before much like the Simpsons' ongoing "McGarnagle" spoof ("You're off the case, McGarnagle!" "You're off YOUR case, chief!") though sometimes it's hard to tell whether Mamet is being serious or not. "FBI could fuck up a baked potato!" I'll take your word for it.
Of course it's possible to craft a serious parody and these early scenes do more than just give some skilled actors the chance to tear out each other's jugulars. One of the stuffed suits (who is black) puts an agitated Gold in his place: "How would you like to be suspended… little kike?" Not subtle perhaps, but there you have the main theme.
Bobby is completely committed to his job but as a Jew in a very Gentile profession he has always felt like an outsider, like he has something to prove. That's why he's always been the first one through the door, always the hardest worker. Until now, Bobby hasn't thought much about it. He can sum up his identity in one word: "cop." But events are about to test his ability to compartmentalize his identity so easily.
Bobby and Sully are assigned to work the Randolph case. The police could score a major coup if they can solve what the FBI couldn't. Bobby looks forward to it both because it's a "flashy" case and because Randolph's been on his radar for years. In fact, he's already been pulled off the Randolph case once and he relishes his second chance.
It's not meant to be, though. By happenstance (if there is such a thing in Mamet's Rube Goldberg universe) he winds up on a murder scene. An elderly Jewish store owner working in a predominantly black neighborhood has been shot to death. "It's not my case," he tells everyone including the family but once the brass shows up, guess what, it is his case. Just like Sully warned him, he has been yanked off the case again, in no small part because he's Jewish (the family, who has some pull, specifically requests Bobby's presence.) The Randolph case continues (mostly) without him and the brief snippets that he sees as his partner and other officers set things up drives him (and the audience) batty.
Bobby brings an understandable amount of resentment with him when he visits the family of the murdered woman. They claim someone is shooting at them, but he dismisses it as paranoia. Though a Jew among Jews, he still feels like an outsider as he can't understand a word of either Yiddish or Hebrew. On what the thinks is a private phone call he complains to Sully about the whole mishigas: "They're not my people man. Fuck ‘em! There's so much anti-Semitism the last 4000 years, we must be doin' something to bring it about." Ouch. And it turns out his conversation isn't so private either. Double ouch! One of those little Mamet twists. You know, a twist. A twist? Yeah, a twist.
Guilt jolts Bobby to action, but his old reliable skills ("Some of that police work people have been talking about") prove insufficient to navigate the looking-glass world he's about to enter. Bobby knows his city like a lover, but he loses all bearings as events turn curiouser and curiouser. Like the parallel universe New York City of "Eyes Wide Shut," Baltimore becomes an expressionistic fever dream that cuts Bobby's legs out from under him and renders him a passive, half-believing observer. Mamet courts serious controversy by showing that there is, in fact, a massive Jewish conspiracy afoot and Bobby winds up hip deep, desperate to belong somewhere, anywhere. Of course if you've seen a Mamet film before, you know there's a con game in play. Heck, Ricky Jay's there. Of course it's a con.
If I haven't mentioned the Randolph case in a while, that's because Bobby forgets about it too. It gets resolved but… well, you'll have to see for yourself. At the top of his (con) game, Mamet keeps two separate narrative strands in play mostly for the sake of defusing both of them. A zinger at the end doesn't make a lick of sense, but the doomy mood of the final scenes packs a wallop that's missing from Mamet's more contrived narratives.
The film is presented in a 1.85: anamorphic transfer. Many scenes are swathed in shadows so it's hard to tell if the relative lack of sharpness in this transfer (relative to most Criterions) is a product of the source print. The transfer was overseen by editor Barbara Tulliver, not Roger Deakins in case that means anything to you. I'm not sure why it would. The transfer is very clean though. It's still a very good transfer, just not a pristine one.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. Optional English subtitles support the English audio. Yiddish and Hebrew dialogue is not translated which is intentional since Bobby doesn't understand it.
This is a relatively modest production by Criterion's standards.
The main feature is a full-length commentary by David Mamet and William H. Macy.
"Invent Nothing, Deny Nothing" is a short feature (21 min.) which weaves together interviews with Joe Mantegna, Ricky Jay, Steve Goldstein and other Mamet collaborators.
The only other extra is a Gag Reel (6 min.). Bloopers, actors having fun messing each other's lines up, etc.
The booklet includes a lengthy and enlightening essay by Nation film critic Stuart Klawans.
With their elaborate and mechanical plots and highly stylized acting, Mamet's films are rarely emotionally engaging. "Homicide" isn't exactly a "Stella Dallas" style weeper or a "Psycho" level horror show, but it leaves a lasting impression. Bobby Gold is one of the most substantive characters Mamet has ever offered. It's certainly the best Joe Mantegna performance I've seen.
With Roger Deakins behind camera, painting in murky shadows, "Homicide" is also the most visually accomplished Mamet film. All in all, it's my favorite movie by this idiosyncratic writer/director.