No other director was able to evoke such feelings of relentless doom and darkness like William Friedkin. “Cruising” is a bold movie from a director that no other studio would touch in this day and age. It’s a movie from a time that’s pretty ancient but also very relevant in modern times. Friedkin squares his lens on the unending darkness and bleak landscape that is New York City, side stepping any and all gloss in favor of unflinching realism. There’s so much to this New York City that’s still so familiar from seedy undergrounds, sub cultures, corrupt police, and a hopelessly broken justice system.
A psychopath is scouring New York City gay clubs and viciously slaying homosexuals. Detective Steve Burns is ordered to don leather attire, hang at the city’s S&M joints and keep an eye out for the killer. But as Steve becomes immersed in club hopping, he begins to identify with the subculture more than he expected. Meanwhile, Steve behaves distantly around his girlfriend, Nancy, the police force’s homophobia becomes apparent and the killer remains at large.
“Cruising” really isn’t a film that is meant to inspire hope at any point; hell the movie even opens on an ocean barge that happens upon a severed arm floating in the water. The murders are so random and numerous that trying to find the victim doesn’t even seem logical. Even when the chief of police, as played by Paul Sorvino, opts to bring Steve Burns in to investigate the series of murders, there’s just no guarantee anyone will be brought to justice. With the gay community forced in to the underground in seedy corners of streets, and alleys where they also commute in crowded BDSM and leather clubs, the odds of filtering out a psychopath are almost pointless. So absurd is the idea that Steve’s whole mission of infiltrating the scene to weed out the killer seems like a complete practice in futility.
Meanwhile the culture that is forced to hide itself is laid out for the audience, allowing us to explore a small society where they communicated through visual cues rather than open meeting spots. Everything about this community in 1980 New York City is centered on what you see, rather than engaging in actual conversation. It’s here where the film’s killer is allowed to flourish, relying on fleeting vulnerability to engage in sadistic murders where he maims his victims with what is essentially a phallic symbol. “Cruising” definitely brings us in to the seedier community forced in to the corner, but it’s primarily a reflection on character Steve Burns’ journey in to his own inner darkness.
Star Pacino gives a very restrained performance as Steve, a man who finds himself in too deep when he begins his undercover job. While “Cruising” is a dark crime thriller, Friedkin delights in healthy ambiguity allowing for the unraveling of a very compelling murder mystery. But by the time the film draws to a close, we’re left with an absolute gut punch of a twist, but are pretty much exactly where we were at the beginning of the movie. That’s further exemplified in the scene of a distant sea barge cruising through the New York harbor. “Cruising” might not exactly be one of Friedkin or Pacino’s best film, but it sure is a compelling one, as well as an important, evocative time capsule.
Playing at the LA&M Film Fetish Forum September 16th, @7pm; Co-Presented by Stephanie Sack of Giallo Gelato.