Cruising. 1980. Directed & Written by William Friedkin; adapted from the novel by Gerald Walker.
Starring Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Richard Cox, Don Scardino, and Joe Spinell. Warner Brothers.
Rated R. 102 minutes.
★★★1/2 (DVD release)
Cruising came about for William Friedkin in a number of ways: through his own observations about the gay bar scene, Gerald Walker’s novel, and his own link to a man convicted of murder (an extra from The Exorcist during the medical scenes). Listening to him talk during one of the featurettes on the making of Cruising, Friedkin really found something to connect with in the story. There is a sense he had a real interest in the whole social scene of the gay bars, as well as a grasp on the danger a lot of these men were in during those times being susceptible to abuse from all sides – not to mention the onset of the AIDS epidemic.
Cruising is about a young police detective, Steve Burns (Pacino), who is recruited by a police captain (Sorvino) to go undercover into the gay clubs of New York City, specifically the underground S&M clubs where some wild stuff goes down. There is a serial killer out cutting up young gay men and dumping their body parts into the river. Fairly on his own both as a cop and mentally, unable to tell his own significant other exactly what he’s doing undercover, Burns starts to find the assignment wearing and tearing down his psyche; he starts to change.
We watch as Burns goes into the underground of gay New York, the hardcore clubs, and we watch as the work starts to infringe on his personal life. It’s a great character study wrapped up in a murder mystery, and with slightly subdued horror undertones. For instance, in one of the first scenes we actually see a really vicious knifing; it plays out tense and mysterious, and then quickly becomes brutal with some brief shots of blood spilling all over the place. I love how Friedkin sort of weaves between genres, mixing them up together into a single, great pot.
Some of the moments we see here with the killer are really the stuff of amazing psychological horror. Yet there’s something very real about it all, too. Friedkin has a great sense for things which horrify us, and yet even though he has made one of the greatest horrors of all time I still wouldn’t classify him whatsoever as a horror filmmaker. He is most of all great with personal drama; the study of characters. Even in The Exorcist, one of the best things about that story is Ellen Burstyn’s character and her own personal journey amongst all the terror she and her daughter experience. Here in Cruising, for all the interesting bits in the creepy parts of this story, the main meat of what’s here is the character study of police officer Steve Burns, and what the work he’s participating in is doing to him. The murder mystery elements are simply a great backdrop for all of this character work to take place.
There is a lot to enjoy visually in this movie. Friedkin used a lot of dull tones, in the sense there isn’t much colour in the film. I like that because it makes things sort of blend together. This works together with one of the themes being transformation; from one place to the next, all the locations almost feel as if they bleed into the next. Just as we start to wonder who the killer really is, over and over at times (another trick Friedkin used was multiple actors playing the actual killer – the DVD lays it out very well which points out how much work went into the red herring effect they achieved here), and certain characters feel as if they bleed into one another, so does the look and the colour of the film. It’s really excellent. Also works to make things feel more grim and gritty.
The soundtrack of Cruising is spectacular. Pairs nicely with the look and feel of the film. Especially the stuff in the gay bars – really rocking soundtrack. Then there’s the score behind a lot of the scenes, which helps to set the mood along with all the colour palette choices. Very good instance of a lot of different aspects working together to create a fuller portrait of a film.
Al Pacino, as he is in many films, is really great here. He does a lot of interesting and subtle work here. Many people seem to often play into the idea that Pacino only does the loud and brash dialogue, or over-the-top type characters. I couldn’t disagree more on the whole, but in Cruising he absolutely shows his chops. Yes, there are times here when he does go into a rage; one moment in particular is a real outburst. Though, it works. The disintegration of this character’s psyche really starts to show in the way Pacino looks, as well as how he starts to treat those around him. He did an amazing job, and his performance is one of those in his filmography people really overlook time and time again. That may have more to do with the controversial nature of the entire film more than with his acting on this occasion, but regardless people shouldn’t skip this over so much. Awesome performance by one of the best actors in film.
Many people probably see too much controversy in this movie to enjoy it. Or at least I can see how some people, specifically in the gay community, might misunderstand William Friedkin’s intentions here – it could be seen as making the gay community, certainly the earlier communities in the late 70s & 80s, look bad. But that is certainly not what he means to do. This is an exploration of a murder mystery, as well as a character study. Friedkin himself says, in the audio commentary & the special features, the gay scene (et cetera) is all about backdrop; he says it was “an interesting background” in which to set this specific story. Add in the novel, as well as Friedkin’s own visit to meet the extra from The Exorcist who bludgeoned a man to death, and you can see why he just found all of this interesting. I absolutely understand how certain people might take this film the wrong way, however, if you really give it a chance, and look at what it’s all about underneath, Cruising is an amazing thriller with horror and mystery elements thrown in for good measure. This is one of Friedkin’s most underrated movies, in my mind. It’s my favourite of his films.|
Both the DVD and film are great. Though, I wish the DVD had more features, it’s still a great release. Certainly for a film that had so much trouble getting released, and after its release. I would love to see this on Blu ray, packed with as many extras and additional cut footage Friedkin could drum up. For now, this DVD will do.
Incredible film. See it when you can, and check out this DVD if you find yourself becoming a fan of this lesser known, amazingly executed film.