Homicide is David Mamet’s best film by a significant margin. None of Mamet’s other films are as resonant or as personal, as layered or enigmatic, as this idiosyncratic police procedural from 1991. What at first appears simply to be Mamet’s take on a shopworn genre—his profane verbal tics perfectly suited for the police bureau bullpen—gradually transitions into something much more complicated and searching. In his commentary track for the Criterion Collection, the Chicago-born playwright repeatedly refers to the film as a tragedy, and discusses its structure in terms of Joseph Campbell’s writings on mythology. And that’s not just directorial pretension—those ideas are right there on the surface of the film, from protagonist Bobby Gold’s descent into a metaphorical underworld at the climax, to the numerous helpers and hinderers who beset his journey. Mamet is most commonly noted for his idiosyncratic, hyper-specific dialogue patterns—not to mention his perceived but debatable misogyny—but an ambition at the conceptional level runs throughout his work, especially in the elaborate long-cons House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner and the oblique kidnapping thriller Spartan. Homicide isn’t free of a few hackneyed cop-movie cliches, but what makes it interesting is how it subverts them, and how unsatisfying and downbeat its ultimate conclusion is.

Played by frequent Mamet collaborator Joe Mantegna, police officer Bobby Gold is in many ways a typical Mamet protagonist, caught between two equally undesirable choices. Gold’s Jewish ethnicity proves a barrier to his entry into the fraternity of policemen. As he confesses late in the film, he’s always felt the need to prove himself, to compensate for the weakness others ascribe to him by “always being the first one through the door.” The question that pervades the film, and which Gold is twice asked directly, is “do you belong nowhere?” On one hand, he can’t quite fit in with the police community that forces him to resent his heritage; on the other, his self-hatred is so deep-seated that he’s reluctant to embrace his Jewishness.

Gold enjoys a healthy friendship with his partner, Tim Sullivan (William H. Macy), and has become the department’s leading negotiator (he’s known as The Orator), upholding his policeman’s oath with a sense of honor and pride. Mamet quickly pits the police against the Jews when a mysterious group of Zionist radicals demands that he destroy a registered piece of evidence: a list of names, discovered in the basement of a candy store run by a recently-murdered gunrunner. They believe the old woman’s death to be part of a conspiracy, and need the list destroyed to protect the rest of their compatriots. This puts Gold in the position of defending his loyalty to the police despite the fact that they’ve never accepted him as a Jew. The film scans as a tragedy because by the end, Gold has become alienated from both groups: his waning commitment to the police results in the death of another officer, while the Zionists resort to blackmail when he refuses to honor their request.

Such an exploration of American Jewish identity, coupled with the Baltimore-set film’s larger racial canvas, feels especially potent today, when issues of representation and diversity have come to dominate certain areas of cinematic discourse. Even when the film was released, Mamet was questioned for casting Mantegna, who’s Italian through and through, as a Jewish character, which Mamet dismissed by balking at the idea that he’d cast based on ethnicity. In a 2010 interview on Charlie Rose, Mamet claims that what he’s looking for when casting is someone who can act, not someone who can act the part. And it’s hard to argue with that in the context of a film so felicitously played by a company of actors so used to working together and so adept with Mamet’s rhythms. Mamet’s commentary track for the film, a conversation with William H. Macy, is little more than the two pointing out all their friends in the film, most of them Chicago theatre actors.

Still, what is it that makes Mantegna as Bobby Gold less offensive than Juliette Binoche and Gabriel Byrne playing Chileans in The 33, Ben Kingsley as Gandhi, or a number of white actors playing Koreans in Cloud Atlas? Are these examples, in fact, all on the same level, and should they be considered problematic? At what point, one must ask, does the imagination of the actor, the ability to empathize with another human being’s experiences, cross the line into appropriation or insensitivity?

Reams of pages have been written on the subject, and still, nobody can seem to agree on the answer. Ultimately, every viewer must decide for herself. Homicide, which features a black superior call Gold a “kike” in front of a crowd, is especially provocative: it would be a shame to let its potent exploration of racial politics and identity be derailed by a quibble about the terrific actor playing Bobby Gold not being Jewish. Mamet’s deep interest in diaspora and assimilation, expressed within the frame of an earnest deconstruction of one man’s choices and his struggle to find his place, is too compelling to ignore, and too fraught with complexity for easy conclusions to be reached. Few treatises on these subjects ever reach this high a level.

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