Friday, November 8, 2013

Watch This: Homicide

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Homicide (1991)
Written and directed by David Mamet

"What are you, then?"

Very rarely can the central theme of a film be summed up in a single, short line of spoken dialogue.  On its surface, David Mamet's Homicide is a murder mystery, concerned with a police detective's investigation into the killing of an elderly Jewish candy store owner.  At the film's heart, however, lies the detective's exploration of his own identity.

Detective Bobby Gold (portrayed by Mamet regular Joe Mantegna) is a secular Jew.  His Jewish heritage does not appear to be a significant part of how he defines himself, and only seems to be important to him when he becomes the target of anti-Semitic slurs.  Gold is respected by his colleagues, although there are inklings that he must downplay his Jewish heritage in order to fit in.  Still, much of his sense of self seems to come from his inclusion in the community of his fellow police officers.  "I'm a cop" is the way he identifies himself to others.

Gold and his partner, Sullivan (William H. Macy in a standout performance), have become involved in the high-profile case of Robert Randolph, a violent criminal in hiding from the police.  On their way to apprehend one of his associates, they happen upon a fresh crime scene, where an elderly Jewish woman has been shot behind the counter of her corner candy store.  The woman's family is convinced that she was the victim of an anti-Semitic hate crime.  After finding out that Gold is Jewish, they use their influence to get him assigned to her case.  Gold is at first uncooperative, preferring to work on the Randolph case instead, and dismissing their assertions that the woman was killed because she was Jewish.  However, as obscure clues begin to suggest that she was involved in gun running for a Zionist organization, and that she may indeed have been the target of an anti-Semitic group, the case becomes the catalyst for Gold's exploration of his own Jewish identity.

In a pivotal scene, Gold visits a library to ask a Jewish scholar for help in deciphering the meaning of a clue.  While Gold is waiting, he converses with a Jewish man who is reading at a nearby study table.  Gold says he is Jewish, but when the man asks him to read a passage in Hebrew from the Book of Esther, Gold responds with some embarrassment that he can't.  The man replies, "You say you're a Jew, but you can't read Hebrew.  What are you, then?"  Gold has no answer.  Determined to find the woman's killers, and more importantly to prove to himself and others that he is a good Jew, he becomes involved with a secret organization whose motives are not what they appear to be.

As a playwright and filmmaker, David Mamet is best known for creating works in which things are never what they seem, in which deception and duplicity take center stage.  Here, the deception lies not only in the machinations of the plot, but also in Gold's misapprehension that he can embrace his Jewish identity without sacrificing his standing among his fellow police officers.  As the case of the murdered woman and Gold's own journey of self-discovery begin to dominate his professional and personal lives, the Randolph case moves further and further into the periphery, and he risks alienating himself from his peers on the police force.  It seems that Gold must make a choice about who he is: cop or Jew?  The question is, if he alienates himself from both groups, then who is he?

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