“Hell isn’t hot. It’s cold,” begins an issue of Frank Miller’s celebrated run on the Daredevil comic book. And so it is with William Friedkin’s Cruising, a movie so spat-upon during its release, and so decorated with crinkly-browed reappraisals years later, that to read the disparate reactions to the film is to risk whiplash. Homophobic! Incompetent! Revolutionary! Experimental! Since the movie turns 30 today, maybe now’s a good time to enter the darkness with gun and flashlight and see what sense, if any, can be made of this polarizing … thing.
Is it possible that Cruising is everything its detractors and defenders say it is? On whatever level, the movie is difficult and steadfastly uninterested in being what you want or expect it to be. Police procedural? Doesn’t really fly that way. Social portraiture? You’d get more insight from a Tom of Finland collection. Hot gay erotica? Top Gun is sexier. Friedkin has said he had to hack Cruising down from 140 minutes to 102, which might account for the movie’s disjointed feel; protesters nearby sabotaged the filming aurally, yelling and letting off airhorns, so a lot of the dialogue had to be looped in later, resulting in a dead from-nowhere sound — in an era notable for urban verisimilitude in movies — that somehow adds to the film’s inarguable creepiness. Nobody in Cruising seems to be quite there.
Al Pacino’s Steve Burns is a New York cop offered a tricky undercover assignment: Someone out there is butchering gay men, all of whom share the same basic look as Steve. Steve will be out there alone, sans gun and shield, playing the part of a rough-trade gay man to lure the killer. This doesn’t seem to give him pause: “I love it,” he says, smiling, when his superior (Paul Sorvino) asks him what he thinks of the job. Is this an ambitious cop eager for promotion, or a latent/closeted homosexual thrilled that the police force has just handed him an official excuse to get down and dirty the way he’s always wanted to?
Steve has a girlfriend (Karen Allen), but we can pretty much dismiss her; Steve does. After he goes undercover, he sees very little of her, and spends more time with friendly gay neighbor Don Scardino (notable these days for directing many 30 Rock episodes) when he’s not haunting such seamy back-in-the-day meat-packing-district clubs as the Ramrod and the Anvil. Steve wanders around the S&M gay scene with an air of befuddlement and detachment. Is he repelled or aroused by what he witnesses (including the infamous Crisco moment)? We don’t know. When he goes off with a guy and the scene fades to black, do they have sex? We don’t know.
Cruising, then, is the sort of maddeningly opaque movie that almost demands that you bring your own reading to it. For fuck’s sake, the killer himself is played by different actors throughout! Does this mean there’s more than one killer (Friedkin himself has said that’s the case), or that it doesn’t matter who the killer is in this nihilistic night world, or that (as one essay I found theorized) it’s actually a demon jumping from body to body as in Fallen … or as in AIDS, which was first diagnosed in NYC a year after the film came out? No matter what he looks like, the killer always has the same spooky, insinuating voice, except for when we meet him when he’s not on the prowl, at which point we find out the voice is his dead father’s. No doubt about it: This movie can inspire a thinking viewer either to say “I fucking give up, this is incoherent” or to probe its incoherence for deeper meaning.
One thing Cruising isn’t is boring. Friedkin keeps us off-balance throughout, partly by his typical to-the-bone editing (Bud Smith), partly by the needling, bizarre soundtrack (Jack Nitzsche), which at one point runs underneath a morgue scene with a sound like a baby screaming. The photography is blue and cold throughout, moving Stephen King to comment that “it has a sparkly look which is still somehow cheesy — it’s like a dead rat in a Lucite block.” I’d say the deadness is intentional; the film is full of emotional zombies, and even Pacino gives a hollow, exhausted performance only occasionally touched with warmth or fear. So what is going on here?
Any pleasure in the film is seen very remotely. The men in the bars are occasionally seen enjoying themselves, but largely it’s grim theater of the damned — not damned because they’re gay but because they have to go to these places, in a stinking area of the city where carcasses hang on hooks, in order to be themselves. It’s a milieu where a serial killer can flourish because to admit witnessing something is to admit being there in the first place. Despite the many protests to the contrary, the movie doesn’t really read as homophobic. The putatively hetero Steve gets along fine with his gay neighbor and doesn’t seem to have a problem with homosexuality in general (a far cry from the protagonist in Gerald Walker’s source novel, a far more complex and disagreeable character). And the film isn’t indifferent to the victims’ suffering; as I wrote in a capsule review on my first viewing years ago, “The first, horrible murder is almost impossible to watch,” and indeed it is. To say that one psychotic gay man may hate himself enough to take it out on other gay men is not the same as saying that all gay men are killers or deserve to die.
Back to Steve, who dutifully mounts his girlfriend and soon after loses sexual interest in her — if he ever had it. Cruising has been criticized because Steve seems to “turn gay” — and, possibly, homicidal — by his proximity to gay men, but there’s enough there to support the reading that Steve is latent or closeted from the get-go. The first conversation we see in the film is between two uniform cops (one is the great Joe Spinell), grousing about the women in their lives, then stopping to harass and sexually assault two queens in leather drag. Spinell’s cop later turns up in one of the clubs Steve visits. And of course there’s the odd scene wherein Steve enters a club apparently frequented solely by cops, or at least guys playing at being cops. And I was reminded of Nick Nolte’s violently closeted detective in Sidney Lumet’s underrated Q&A. The closet does weird things to people, especially men in macho lines of work. Some, like Nolte’s cop or Spinell’s cop, deal with it by terrorizing “fags.” More sensitive types like Steve might become confused but still function sanely.
The consensus seems to be that, when a gay man is found dead after the killer has been taken into custody, it’s Steve who’s the killer now. That may have been the case in Walker’s novel, where such a twist is prepared for a bit better, but in the movie it elicits a “Huh?” I think Friedkin is trying to end on a question mark, but I think it’s also possible to understand the final killing as merely a lovers’ quarrel, which has been prepared for. Neither reading is particularly nice, but if you want nice, what are you doing watching a William Friedkin cop movie?
Cruising is a deeply strange film, and though I don’t think it’s entirely successful, I don’t think it deserves its status as the skunk in Friedkin’s resume, either (nor, incidentally, do I believe it’s a misunderstood masterpiece of dread or something). I will say that its ambiguities might be viewed more charitably if its style and emphasis weren’t so alienating. It holds us at arm’s length; instead of approaching us, it makes us come closer, makes us join it inside some brackish men’s restroom that smells bad, and then leaves us in there with a lot of unanswered questions. Then a black guy wearing a cowboy hat and a jockstrap comes in, slaps us, and leaves to go read the newspaper.