note: article contains spoilers
It's so easy.
The career of the great William Friedkin seems almost like a cautionary-tale in itself. His latest film “Killer Joe” was very positively received and promises a return to form, after a slump that lasted almost three decades now. So it’s easy to forget that at one point this man practically ruled Hollywood after the awesome one-two punch of “The French Connection” and “The Excorcist”. So what happened that caused this slump? Well, “Cruising” happened.
“Cruising” follows an undercover police officer, played by the always great Al Pacino, who is on the hunt for a serial killer that is targeting the S&M gay scene of the meatpacking district in New York City. As the case progresses and he learns more about this subculture he starts becoming alienated from his girlfriend and his own nature starts changing.
The subject of overt sexuality pretty much makes any film in America a controversial one. It seems like someone will always stage a protest. Then you throw in male gay sexual content, bondage, fisting and other fun stuff like that and you pretty much got a shit-storm on your hands. Which is exactly what William Friedkin ended up with once “Cruising” hit the theaters. But the problems started even before that.
The film had to be recut numerous times in order to get the R rating the studio desired. About 40 minutes where cut out of the film that where considered too offensive, and this of course is heavily felt in the final cut of the film.
Whole subplots are left unresolved. The questions of the killer’s motivations are only superficially explained while the questions of how, why and to what extent this job changed our protagonist are never answered. The ending of the film is a glorious mess that tries to leave us on an ambiguous note, but then it is also suggesting all kinds of things that come pretty much out of the blue.
Once the film finally released the critics almost universally hated it. There where protests staged by the New York gay community during and after the production of the film, but it still managed to do well enough financially. And since it came out on video it has become something of a cult film; and rightfully so.
The best thing about the film is the almost obsessive detail in which it goes to introduce us to this world. All the signals and rules that are used in this subculture are explained, and the portrayal of the clubs is very close to reality. In fact Friedkin shot these scenes in the clubs of the meatpacking district, with many extras being the actual clientele of these clubs. All this provides a unique window in to one of the most bizarre modern subcultures.
Then there are the various suggestions that Friedkin makes towards the sexuality of Al’s character. In the current incarnation of the film he is never shown to perform sexual activities apart from with his girlfriend, but it is often suggested that he may be a closet homosexual. It is never said verbatim mind you, but it may explain the behavior of his character in the last third of the film, and the unresolved murder at the end. This could all be interpreted as an outburst of sexual repression on Al’s part, but it is hard to say for sure in the current cut of the film.
Another thing to keep an eye out for are also the flash frames during the murder scenes, similar to those Friedkin did in “The Exorcist”. Only that this time around they are clearly cutouts out of some gay porno film, equating the stabbing of the murders with anal sex. It may be good to mention here that once Al finds out who the killer is, he stalks him, lures him with the promise of sex and then kill him in self-defense with a knife.
So there is obviously quite a lot here to analyze and ponder over. You could clearly make a solid case that Al’s character turns in to a killer because he doesn’t get to fulfill his repressed desires. But like I said before in the current version of the film it is impossible to give a definitive answer. Maybe one day we get a director’s cut version with the restored footage that might shed more light on all these questions, but until then “Cruising” will remain a very unique and a very flawed gem.
Al Pacino - Steve Burns
Paul Sorvino - Cpt. Edelson
Karen Allen - Nancy
Richard Cox - Stuart Richards
James Remar - Gregory
Cruising on IMDb