SEA OF LOVE, 1989
Cast: Al Pacino, Ellen Barkin, John Goodman, Michael Rooker, William Hickey, Richard Jenkins
Divorced detective Frank Keller (Al Pacino) and fellow Detective Sherman (John Goodman) trace a serial killer that’s acquiring their victims through the Lonely Hearts column in the newspaper. Using himself as bait, Keller places his own ad in the column in hopes of catching the killer! The plan seems to be going well until Keller finds himself falling in love with one of the investigation’s main suspects: Miss Helen Cruger (Ellen Barkin).
OSCAR Winners for Best Supporting Actor and Actress (Johnson and Leachman)
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After a four-year break from screen acting, Al Pacino returned with this sexually charged thriller that reinstated him as one of the most important actors working in Hollywood. It’s fair to say that he had spread himself rather thinly during the eighties and had not turned out as many classic performances as he had done in the previous decade. The eighties marked a period of time where Pacino would seek more offbeat roles like: Steve Burns in Cruising (1980) and Tom Dobb in Revolution (1985). It’s also fair to say that these roles struggled to gel with audiences that wanted more of the Tony Montana and Michael Corelone character-types that Pacino had by now become synonymous with.
In Frank Keller Pacino found a lonely, tortured and conflicted man that was isolated from those around him – essentially a perfect role! Good crime thrillers usually create an emotional dynamic whereby the protagonist can identify with the crime he/she is trying to solve. Take John Ferguson’s fear of heights in Vertigo (1958) and Frank Horrigan’s guilt over the JFK assassination from In the Line of Fire (1993) as clear examples of this dynamic. Likewise, Pacino’s lonely Frank Keller needs no convincing to put his ad in the Lonely Hearts column. In fact, it’s his idea! There is constant longing in Pacino’s eyes, particularly during the wedding party scene in which Pacino sits alone at a table watching the happy (and married) Sherman celebrate amongst the other “happy couples.”
The combination of fear and lust is well portrayed by Barkin and Pacino emotionally. On their first night of intimacy, Cruger and Keller are so physically attracted to each other that they are almost violent with each other as they tear one another’s clothes off. But lust soon turns into fear when Keller spots the pistol in her handbag, before you know it he is pinning Cruger against the wall for a slightly different reason! The scene has that raw theatrical feel that Pacino clearly loves. You can imagine it playing on stage with equally raw dramatic power. It’s a shame that in his more recent roles in the past decade Pacino’s talent has not been allowed this space to breathe.
Sea of Love also marked the emergence of a new Al Pacino. His face had matured, the now trademark dark circles had appeared around his deep brown eyes and the smoke-charred voice had replaced the higher pitched, melodious Bronx accent. He really looked the part playing the middle-aged woes of Frank Keller. Sea of Love showed Pacino more as a romantic lead; the movie is a dark love story. The image of Barkin walking seductively down Keller’s corridor under a veil of shadow is a tantalizing moment of suspense… is she coming to kill him or make love to him? She’s a superb answer to Keller’s mid-life crisis!
This danger that excites Keller soon becomes a very real threat when “someone” pays him a visit one night in similar fashion to Cruger. The director Harold Becker does brilliantly to balance the light and dark moments without the film slipping into farce. He skillfully weaves the romantic narrative with the classic thriller devices. Having seen what the killer is doing to their victims, Keller realizes that the crime now involves him more than perhaps is “safe”. Becker keeps Cruger as a suspect and does not reveal his hand until the film’s climax!
And what a climax it is! Contemporary thrillers are arguably too obvious given how conditioned we are to the devices used. Audiences have (whether they are conscious of it or not) become conditioned to these kinds of devices and how they work. If a director sets things up too conventionally the audience gets wise to his plan and checks out very quickly. As William Friedkin famously said about filmmaking: “An audience is five steps ahead of you!” Luckily (and even by today’s standards) Sea of Love can keep you guessing up until the final reveal which is a testament to how well constructed this off-beat thriller is.
With top draw performances from Pacino, Goodman, Barkin and Rooker, Sea of Love is a solid thriller that does exactly what is says on the tin. It’s the kind of film, certainly the kind of “Pacino Movie” that you don’t see enough of in today’s Hollywood films.