Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Homicide/Memories Of A Murder

Sometimes movies just mash up against each other, casting unexpected light on different aspects of each other that never would have been caught unless it was being watched in tandem . Its one of the unexpected pleasures of being a film fan, and the thing is you can’t force it, you just have to wait for it and let it happen. I’ve had two such mash ups recently, the first being my batshit crazy New Orleans Double Feature, Bad Lieutenant Port Of Call New Orleans, and The Princess and The Frog, and now this when two movies I’ve been meaning to see for awhile happened to arrive from Netflix on the same day.

Homicide is a David Mamet movie which I have to admit I’d never even heard of until Criterion re-released it in late 2009. Mamet’s an interesting director for me to view as he’s someone I like without having any particular allegiance to. For every great propulsive piece of writing Mamet has delivered he’s got another that’s mannered to within an inch of its life.

Homicide opens with the startling image of a parade of black hooded gunmen making their way silently up the staircase. Mamet audaciously gives no sign that these people are Cops, and it takes us a moment to realize that they’re not a Nicrauaguan death squad. (Another nice touch that a man known for his gimmicky dialogue would allow the first five minutes of his movie to open in silence). The SWAT team breaks in only then identifying themselves as cops. One of the people they’re going to capture reaches for his gun, without hesitation they blow his brains out.

It’s a stark arresting opening, and the message is clear, the taking of one human life by another is something to be weighted. Homicide explores the action, with no partiality to legality or circumstance.

Or at least that seems to be what the movie will be about.

The target of the raid escapes, and Homicide starts in earnest, with the police chief dressing down a hall full of cops and eventually assigning two detectives played by Mantenga and William H. Macy to find the escaped drug dealer, and to bring him in alive to avoid charges of corruption. This scene is pure Mamet playing off several levels of power, racial tension, with his trademark ratatat dialogue, all while dumping about a boat load of exposition and laying the character groundwork and themes that’ll power the rest of the movie. Just as a piece of screencraft its beautiful.

It’s a great concept worthy of a first class policier but Homicide eventually brews into something darker, deeper and a lot stranger. Using the crime as a counter point, to the main action. It starts in the scene that immediately proceeds Mamet’s exposition hoedown, Mantenga prepares to chase the missing suspect, when two fellow cops bring in an obviously white collar man who has just murdered his wife and child with a deer rifle, “to keep them safe’. It too is quintessential Mamet, hardened professionals using Gallow’s humor to survive in the face of Human Ugliness that Mamet is so expert at drawing.

The movie gets to its main plot when Mantenga literally stumbles across what appears to be a hate crime, in which a Jewish shopkeeper in a black neighborhood has apparently been murdered for, “The fortune in her basement.” Mamet’s never exactly been one to worry about what’s PC, and he’s laid the groundwork for a great racial drama. But the movie dose have one major stumbling block which is the casting of Mamet Stalwart Joe Mantanga as the very Jewish cop at the center of the film. Which is sort of like casting Morgan Freeman as the Jewish cop at the center of the film. Now look, when you have an actor as outspoken about being Italian as Mantanga, someone who has in fact been president of The Italian American Anti Defamation League, it’s a mistake to cast him as something other then Italian. Mantanga’s a strong actor, and he does his best, he’s good enough actor to look pissed when someone calls him “Kike”. But with every scene that deals with him being Jewish, there’s the knowledge in the back of my mind that he’s about as Jewish as The Pope. As his struggle with his Jewish Identity basically takes up the entire second act of the film and most of the third. It’s problematic.

The film eventually weaves away from the title crime, as it gets involved in a conspiracy involving gun running and Israel.

All of Mamet’s films are of course about Con games but this is the first one where the film IS the con. It’s like the movie is holding two clenched fists infront of you. One’s a policier about the nature of death. The other is a thriller about Jewish identity. Which one is it? Because the movie is never both. Which is either it’s masterstroke or it’s fatal flaw. I’m still not sure which.

The film itself admits as much with the mundane ending it finally pulls out to solve the mystery. After all the Byzantine weaves its taken, a bit of Occam’s Razor comes in nicely.

The dichotomy that has always driven Mamet’s work is that he’s a misanthrope who strongly believes in honor and decency. There are few writers as skilled at summing up all that’s ugly about the human condition as Mamet, but that allows him to make big statements that others can’t.

At the end of the scene, I mentioned earlier with the killer who executed his wife and child, Mantenga and the murderer talk.

Murder: Thank you for your help. Maybe one day I could help you.

Mantenga: How the fuck could you help me?

Murder: How about the nature of Evil? Want to understand the nature of Evil?

Mantenga: Fuck no, if I did I’d be out of a job.

That’s Mantenga talking, but that’s Mamet as well.

I was one of the five people who didn’t like Bong’s film The Host (which had me up until its mean spirited out of nowhere ending). That’s the only reason I can think of that I’ve waited five years to finally see Memories Of A Murder. That was a mistake.

Memories Of A Murder is kind of tremendous. Based off of South Korea’s first serial killer, Memories Of A Murder is like Zodiac a procedural that mocks the very idea that procedure can figure out anything. It’s a murder mystery that mocks the very idea of solutions (It’s like Zodiac in a lot of other ways too. Since it predates that film by 5 years I would not be at all surprised to learn that Fincher watched this a couple of times before starting).

Memories Of A Murder opens with a Spielbergian idyll. Golden fields blowing gently in the wind, as children play and adults are caught in the rhythms of their day to day life. Two men ride out on a tractor the children chasing after them. It’s of course an illusion. The two men pull a woman’s naked insect covered body out of a drainage ditch. The children end up playing with her bloody clothes.

Just how unprepared the South Korean Police force is for such murderers ends up being one of the films most fascinating angles. In one of the film’s most stunning shots, a two minute long tracking shot, Inspector Park races around his disorganized crime scene as Children play around the corpse and a truck runs over footprints all the while screaming for a forensic team that never quite show up.

To say these cops our out of their depth would be an understatement. Its not that the killer is exceptionally clever, its that no one can quite wrap their head around the magnitude of what he’s doing. The best the cops can do is hassle old boyfriends, torture suspects, and beat up the retarded.

There are times when Memories Of A Murder approaches the level of a jet black comedy. The police work is so futile that its damn near absurdist. They have nothing better to do then to chase their latest dead end, then wait for it to rain again.

Things get complicated when a big city cop, arrives as back up for the case. Not that he does much good. He’s just as out of his depth as the others. But adds the another layer to the absurdist comedy as he stares in horror at his colleagues methods.

AgainLike Zodiac I was shocked at what a restrained film, Memories Of A Murder was. Korean films after all have a reputation for rubbing your nose in depravity and ultra violence. And while Memories Of A Murder certainly doesn’t sugar coat anything, there’s nothing here that I would venture to even call gratuitous. Most of the violence is kept just out of frame. Like the killer, the absence somehow makes it more disturbing.

Memories Of A Murder is world class filmmaking. Haunting is an overused adjective, but there’s something indenialble about Memories Of A Murder. It sticks to your ribs.

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