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A serial killer brutally slays and dismembers several gay men in New York's S&M and leather districts. The young police officer Steve Burns is sent undercover onto the streets as decoy for the murderer. Working almost completely isolated from his department, he has to learn and practice the complex rules and signals of this little society. While barely seeing his girlfriend Nancy anymore, the work starts changing him. Written by
Tom Zoerner <Tom.Zoerner@informatik.uni-erlangen.de>
Despite all the mega-negative publicity before and after the making of this film, I have to say that I find "Cruising" a masterpiece of ambiguity. There is no clear-cut narrative, no definable character motivations, and the obligatory "cop-entering-the-killer's-mind" scenario gets drowned in an atmosphere of violence and dread that sort of saturates the entire movie. But what a descent into Hades it is!
I've admired William Friedkin's work since "The French Connection" presented to me a cop film with an unsympathetic protagonist as well as a collection of amazing action setpieces unaccompanied by any noisy, thumping Kenny Loggins or Michael Kamen tunes in the background. Plus, there's that downbeat conclusion where the movie basically STOPS rather than ends. No clear resolutions, nothing. What nerve this guy has.
I admired "Sorcerer" and "To Live and Die In L.A." for a lot of the same reasons, primarily their edgy and stark determination to tell stories with no answers. So what are we left with in "Cruising"? Friedkin's exceptional yet manipulative film technique and a lot of sweaty men dancing in West Village dungeons, popping amyl nitrates, and moving to some of the scariest Village-People-on-P.C.P. dance music that I've ever heard (try cranking this soundtrack up at a party).
But "Cruising" is a true experiment in movie suspense. It uses some fantastic atmosphere (sound effects and the late Jack Nitschze's superb score) to unsettle the audience. Friedkin's use of multiple actors to play the same killer, the switching over mid-film to tell the killer's story instead of having him remain an ominous presence (a technique Michael Mann used to similar effect in "Manhunter"), and the film's ending with its peaceful music serenading shots of the New York City harbor--the dump site for many of the killer's victims--all function as a sort of test. Can we be absorbed by a movie that makes it clear that there really is no certainty or logic to what we're watching? That there is no firm ground to stand on? It's almost like watching a sinking ship.
It seems to me that Friedlkin always wants his audience on edge, and he wants us to be constantly challenged by not only the tough subject matter, but where Pacino's undercover detective figures into the whole sordid mess. The novel explains more about the homophobia and hostility in Steve Burns, but the film keeps all of these elements surface; we're almost numbed into a kind of voyeuristic fascination (or revulsion) at the ugly sights. And we're left out in the cold regarding Burns' true feelings. Maybe some of the film's detractors would have preferred a voice-over? Not too much suspense there.
Luckily, Pacino's performance is low-key as well (a luxury we don't enjoy these days with any of his post"Scent of a Woman" exercises in Circus Vargas acting) and this further causes us to distrust our own "hero".
So amidst all this confusion, what is there left to recommend? "Cruising" is a risk-taking thriller with the audacity to shock, revolt, and confuse without losing any of its intensity or pace. It's merits lie in its unique respect for the audience, thinking that we don't need everything explained to us. Just as the gay leather underworld is its own surreal type of subculture, so should our approach to viewing the film remain unbiased by red herrings or should we have any expectations that the film will lead us along, "keep our interest", or enlighten us in the end. I mean, after all, this isn't "Agatha Christie".
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