It was inevitable that David Mamet would one day make a cop film, a movie that would outpatter even TV’s Dragnet for insistent verbal beatdowns. And still, when he finally got around to it, the playwright and director managed a surprise move that makes 1991’s Homicide a complex, essential work. Of course, here are his men beautifully bitching about the job. Detective partners are brought to life by Mamet’s two most sensitive mouthpieces: Joe Mantegna (the original Ricky Roma in Broadway’s Glengarry Glen Ross) and Oleanna’s William H. Macy. Shot in Baltimore and predictive of The Wire, Homicide takes place in an unnamed city torn by racial violence; Mantegna’s Bobby Gold is a renowned hostage negotiator.
Following a shooting incident in the Orthodox Jewish community, the movie reveals itself as a deep study in assimilationist shame. Gold transforms from a bored baby-sitter—“I’m stuck here with my Jews,” he complains—to an embarrassed dummkopf unable to read Hebrew, finally becoming a radicalized Zionist, reborn to the subtle ways in which he is demeaned on the force by foes and friends. Yet is the conspiracy of hatred a real one?
Mamet himself would address Judaism more centrally in his writing; anxious nonfiction like The Wicked Son pegs him as just as worried as Gold. Homicide, however, remains impressively open-ended. Stuart Klawans, the estimable critic for The Nation, contributes a fine text essay to the DVD booklet, going deeply into the power of words.