Director: Harold Becker
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Do you remember
When we met
That’s the day
I knew you were my pet
Female serial killers are few and far between in the movies, but when they hit theatres, they usually create a sensation. Friday the 13th (1980) trafficked in the usual revenge-seeking psychokiller conception of a female serial killer; I Spit on Your Grave (1978) took the psycho part out of the equation, but still gave revenge as the main motive, as did 1983’s Sudden Impact. Basic Instinct (1992) blasted Sharon Stone and her crotch onto the Hollywood map, while enraging feminists, in general, and lesbians, in particular, for perpetuating the stereotype of the man-hating lesbian. Monster (2003), which tells the story of real-life killer Aileen Wournos, garnered Charlize Theron an Oscar for both a riveting performance and her willingness to hide her loveliness under piles of make-up; again, revenge and lesbianism are linked explicitly and implicitly to her murderous ways.
Then we have Sea of Love, a genuine oddity in the history of movie-making. Coming as a reverberating ripple from the tidal wave of second-wave feminism, it plays unironically with the possibility that a straight female is killing men.
Al Pacino plays Frank Keller, a 20-year veteran of the New York Police Department who is facing a lonely, alcoholic retirement as a divorced and very unattached man. He is investigating a murder in a Manhattan apartment; a man has been found lying naked, face down on his own bed with a bullet in his head. He was discovered by his next-door neighbor who had come to complain about a recording of “Sea of Love” that had been playing in an endless loop on his old-fashioned turntable.
Keller and Det. Gruber (Richard Jenkins)—husband of Keller’s ex-wife—have no real leads until Det. Sherman Touhey (John Goodman) comes to them with a similar case in Queens. They link the killings to a singles magazine and the fact that the men used poems to attract responses. Keller and Touhey become partners on the case and theorize that a woman is the “doer,” imagining anger/revenge scenarios to explain her crimes. They decide to place their own ad, have drinks with the women who answer it, take fingerprints off their cocktail glasses, and eventually find a match to the prints at the crime scenes. The set-up works fine until Helen Cruger (Ellen Barkin) takes the seat in front of Keller, sizes him up quickly, decides they have no chemistry, and leaves without even picking up her wine glass.
The investigation continues fruitlessly, briefly detouring to a black grocery delivery boy, until Frank runs into Helen at a convenience store. When she accuses him of not writing the poem he placed as his ad, he tells her he used a poem his father (William Hickey) gave him, one Frank’s mother had written in high school during his parents’ courtship. Impressed, Helen decides to give Frank another chance, and Frank plots to fingerprint her. He ends up falling for her instead. On the verge of asking her to move in with him, he becomes convinced she is the killer, and the film moves rapidly to its climax and denouement.
This sounds like an exciting thriller—and it is—but director Becker and Richard Price, one of the smartest screenwriters around, have something more substantial on their minds than giving audiences a roller coaster ride. Much like Frank’s adoption of a false front to catch a killer, they use the cover story of the murder investigation to explore the state of heterosexual relationships that second-wave feminism had shaken to the core.
As the film begins, Becker takes us to the old Times Square teeming with strip joints and hookers. This is an interesting way to signal not only the noirish aspects of the cover story, but also the squalor that characterized traditional male-female relationships—the unveiled picture of Dorian Gray, so to speak. It is also smart to feature a man in full midlife crisis as the protagonist. Stripped of his place at the head of a household and a loss of career identity looming, Frank represents Man at his most vulnerable. The men around him in the squad room and among those he questions carry on as though nothing has changed—telling dirty jokes, Sherman celebrating his daughter’s marriage with extended family and friends dancing the night away; it seems only Frank knows that the world has turned upside down. When he and Helen share a sweet moment in bed, he says, “Neither of us lives for our jobs.” Helen answers, “I guess I live for love. What else is there?” Although this may seem like a traditionally female answer, it’s clear that this lesson is something Frank is meant to learn, and learn the hard way. When Frank questions how a guy he barely spoke to in six years on the job could have stolen his wife, Gruber says, “Maybe you weren’t giving her what she wanted.” Disparagement of the emo or sensitive man is nothing but whistling in the wind for a traditional masculine culture that cannot accept that men need to find what is soft and vulnerable within themselves, not locate it externally among their women.
The film also allows us to see women in a fresh light. We get to see Helen at the shoe store she manages, serving her customers with smooth confidence. She has a daughter, conceived during her bad first marriage; she left her husband as soon as she knew she was pregnant and made a life for them on her own, a move Frank finds incredibly gutsy. She is aggressively carnal; when she and Frank have sex for the first time, she looks as though she is going to devour him. Frank doesn’t even use a crude term to refer to their physical relationship, preferring to say “making love” when he tells Sherman how bad he feels about spying on her.
Perhaps the ultimate recognition of women as they really might be is the fact that nobody at the NYPD questions the idea that a heterosexual woman could be the serial killer. Certainly this is not an equality women might want to accept, but it does recognize that women are capable of the full range of emotions and of acting on those emotions. Tellingly, Sherman and Frank don’t think their shooter was motivated by a hatred of men or really even revenge; they posit that she might not have liked the men’s performance in bed or the fact that they sleep around. That’s a reverse on why men traditionally ditch or kill their wives and girlfriends.
The performances are quite interesting in this film. Ellen Barkin is at her sexiest; while she does not abandon vulnerability, her embrace of assertiveness ensures that she will not be considered mere window dressing by any but the most obtuse moviegoer. John Goodman is a sympathetic partner, recognizing Frank’s plight and understanding the weaknesses that flesh is heir to.
But this film really belongs to Al Pacino. He contains his tendency to go too big, while using it appropriately to convey Frank’s confusion, such as when he is about to bed Helen and sees a gun in her purse. Panicked that he almost literally has been caught with his pants down with the killer, he locks her in a closet and must stammer his way to an apology when he realizes that the gun is a starter’s pistol that she carries to scare off would-be muggers. “What this city does to a person,” is all Frank can say in a supremely human moment. More impressive is the undercurrent of mixed messages and motives behind Frank’s actions. Frank betrays himself in a drunken moment when he chides Helen for dating through the personals and reveals that for him it was part of his job. Later, he lies about the sting as a way to reveal a deeper truth—that he got scared when he realized how attached he was to Helen and tried to foul up their relationship. This performance of duality—distrust of Helen as both a woman and a suspect—adds a complex layer to an already intricately constructed film.
The most telling moment of all—a beautiful scene that seems almost like a throwaway—occurs when Frank spies Helen’s collection of 45s and finds a recording of “Sea of Love” among them. He pulls the record out of its case, only to have Helen surprise him in the act. Shaken by this marker toward her guilt, he asks her about it. She says she hasn’t looked at those records in years. “I kept them to leave to my daughter,” she says. “They might be worth something some day.” Although 50s-style romance with women as pets was dead to these characters, this tidy scene sounds the film’s hope that love might once again be so simple, sweet, and precious.