Last week’s Graffiti Thursday schedule featured our list of Definitive Detective films. Thanks to the contribution and collaboration from our team and friends of Graffiti, our list featured quite a few films that I hadn’t crossed paths with. In the coming months, I’m going to attempt to complete the whole set.
While the squall of praise for The Night Of envelops co-creators Steven Zallian (Writer of Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York, Moneyball) and Richard Price (Writer of Ransom, The Colour of Money and several episodes of The Wire), this reviewer was rummaging through Price’s back catalogue. Sea of Love, written by Price, and directed by Harold Becker is a tale of a New York cop so desperate to regain attachment to the world that he’s willing to forgo the risks of sleeping with a suspected serial murderer.
Face down, imitating a sex act, at gunpoint. BANG. Detective Frank Keller (Al Pacino) and Detective Sherman (John Goodman) are cops from two New York precincts who catch matching ‘whodunits.’ Two men using poetry in personal ads from the New York Weekly have ended up dead and they create a two-man taskforce to bait a woman that they feel is responsible. When Helen Cruger (Ellen Barkin) responds to the ad, Keller has to wrestle with infatuation and the prospect that she’s the killer.
Price takes this snappy premise and refrains from instigating a citywide manhunt; Keller (Pacino) and Sherman (Goodman) take the approach that they should be the targets for the next killer. Price very much hones in on Keller’s flow. There are time in the latter half of the film that you feel like it’s going off course but Becker, Price and Pacino want to begin to sense (potential) unreliably with their protagonist. Becker’s (who was behind my sister’s favourite film, the terribly underrated Malice [I’ll let you dear reader judge what that says about her]) direction has fun with the repetition of the investigation. The detectives use same haunts where the victims had been and the same ‘speed dating’ interactions to narrow down the list of possible suspects. When Helen meets Keller and detects that something’s amiss she walks; Pacino is like a hound with a scent. Becker uses New York’s diners and the boxy apartments like containment cells for secrets. Keller’s pursuit of Helen and their eventual encounters are steamy. The uncertainty of Helen’s innocence and Barkin’s animalistic sex appeal only lead me to recommend that you dust off your ‘ice bucket challenge’ equipment along with your popcorn.
Pacino’s Keller has to do everything to be able to stay engaged with this parade of sad and lonely people. In his interactions with the men of his precinct (prior to meeting Goodman), you see a man that does not play well with others. Pacino wears detective characters like Clint Eastwood wears Cowboys. He’s not an imposing, bulking ‘Popeye’ Doyle, (Gene Hackman from The French Connection), he’s a diminutive guys who leverages his wits and fearless people-reading skills to navigate crooks. When he realises how powerless he is against the wiles of Helen, he’s frightened. It’s an engrossing performance.
Ellen Barkin is essential why Sea of Love works so damned well. She’s obviously got one of those incredibly alluring and unique faces (with hypnotic eyes to boot) but Helen feels like a woman who definitely could not be involved in these killings; and one with the mystique to be hiding something. Their chemistry is electric. The supermarket scene could probably power your house for a week.
Goodman’s Sherman is all the thing’s that Keller isn’t; affable, gregarious, charming and big enough that he can easily break up a scuffle. His defining characteristic is his thick skin and the ability to ride out Keller’s impulse to withdraw. His enthusiasm and skepticism can have a ‘smelling salts’ effect on Keller’s focus.
Sea of Love is unrestrained and completely hypnotic; thanks Steven Soderbergh for bringing Barkin and Pacino back together Ocean’s Thirteen; I know officially understand.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman
Directed by: Harold Becker > Malice, Mercury Rising
Written by: Richard Price > The Wire, The Night Of, Ransom, The Colour of Money
Al Pacino … Det. Frank Keller
Ellen Barkin … Helen Cruger
John Goodman … Det. Sherman
Michael Rooker … Terry
William Hickey … Frank Keller Sr.
Richard Jenkins … Gruber