A striking simple agenda can often produce the strongest stories, and David Mamet understands this. Stronger than blood are the alliances we make to feel at home. Perhaps we are made fun of, or ignored, so we struggle to fit in, and begin to do away with the parts of ourselves that no longer work in our new environment. So what happens, then, when our very identity is called upon to serve us, called upon to classify and direct us? Partly a conspiracy thriller, partly a desperate search for racial identity, Mamet's Homicide is a complicated foray into a dark world populated by hard-nosed cops and cryptic occurrences.
Detective Gold (Joe Mantegna) and his partner (William H. Macy) are steps away from capturing a wanted felon (Ving Rhames) when Gold stumbles into a murder that sidetracks his own investigations. The Jewish family of the murdered woman wants Gold to investigate, and as he does, he is led further into a dangerous exploration of his own beliefs and heritage. Will the murder help Gold come to terms with his heritage, or will he fall further from his past in his search for acceptance?
Mamet directs his own work here, and it feels much like a stage play, from the occasionally halting dialogue to the setting, a bland and menacing cityscape where evil lurks on rooftops or underground. The really remarkable part of the film is the tension Mamet maintains between reality and perception. The audience is lead to wonder if the events in question are even occurring. As Gold begins to connect more deeply with his Jewish identity, the events become increasingly improbable. He is criticized by several characters throughout the film, and it is clear that in order to belong fully to the police force, he has renounced his Jewish identity in part. Several Jews marvel at his inability to speak Yiddish, and then later at his ignorance of Hebrew, causing Gold to rethink the choices he has made. Mantegna is wonderfully cast as the staid Gold, weary and stoic in the face of derision or opposition, his face a mask as he seems to struggle to feel anything at all. William H. Macy is excellent as always, his small frame and slightly apologetic hang-dog attitude serving the story well. Mamet has clearly marked out the boundaries of this world, and the actors are given a narrow scope to work within. But it is within this cramped space that the details of the plot, the alienation and confusion, are given liberty to roam, tumbling over and over in the mind of the viewer.
Mamet is a skilled director, helped along in Homicide by Roger Deakins' remarkable cinematography, and this Criterion release is approved by Mamet himself. Mamet and Macy provide a sterling commentary track that elucidates many of Mamet's directorial decisions; a gag reel and multiple interviews are also included. The image has been cleaned up and is remarkably clear, as Deakins' handiwork so richly deserves. Criterion essays tend to be my favorite piece of the release, and Stuart Klawans' work is no exception. Klawans' essay is complex, nuanced, and insightful, bringing to light difficult correlations and notable intricacies of plot and tone.
Mamet has done something wonderful here, as the potentially exhausting topic of racial identity is given a tight focus which reinvigorates and intrigues. This film is a must-see for any Mamet enthusiast, but stands on its own as an excellent detective story with remarkably high stakes.
Homicide is available now from Criterion.