Summer of Sam (1999)

D: Spike Lee
S: John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody

Heady serial killer movie from the unlikely directorial hand of Spike Lee (Clockers, Get on the Bus) which uses the anchor of the story of the infamous 'son of Sam' murders to explore his usual themes of moral compromise and social prejudice against an intense urban setting. The film takes place mostly in an Italian neighbourhood in the Bronx where a group of friends and neighbours cluster around a 'Dead End' sign and live unremarkably desperate lives. When former pal Adrien Brody returns from Punk England infused with a new sense of himself and his identity, initial rejection by the group becomes more sinister. They suspect he might be the killer for no better reason than the pressure of the long hot summer has made them even more irrational than usual and they are looking for someone to blame. Meanwhile womanising hairdresser John Leguizamo (Romeo and Juliet, Spawn) has a brush with the real killer and assumes God has sent him a message to be a better person. He doesn't manage it very well, and the effort makes him less of a husband than ever to beautiful wife Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite). He remains loyal to Brody, but as personal, interpersonal, and social tensions mount, his failure to understand and accommodate others extends even to his friend, with tragic results.

Summer of Sam is a powerful drama exploring the deep-rooted moral and psychological processes which underlie both the act and the existence of prejudicial and uncompromising attitudes. Lee films usually apply this kind of analysis to racial themes, and though his fascination with Italian-Americans is nourished by co-writers and co-producers Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli, this is the most exclusively 'white' film that Lee has ever directed. This doesn't stop him working through the material with a capable, intelligent hand and forcing his characters to work hard for their redemption. Homosexuality (and punk) is included as a sort of ethnic sub-altern signalling Brody's difference from his fellows and inciting their hatred. In this case however, there is no redemption for the unforgiving. Unlike the protagonists of most of his previous films, Leguizamo here faces utter moral failure. The cathartic violence which climaxed Do the Right Thing was righteous from Lee's point of view, and reinforced his character's moral and racial convictions. The violence with which Summer of Sam concludes is merely the logical result of the lack of conviction which destroys the character. It is not an easy ending, and has the same feeling of realistic uncertainty that concluded Clockers and Do the Right Thing, and it marks Lee's presence in the material despite a pronounced racial context.

Summer of Sam is among Lee's best films. It is a deft balance of scale and intimacy which neatly develops theme, character, and setting equally, taking the viewer on an immersive trip through a hectic moment in recent American culture. Lee's own frequent appearance as a news reporter provides the film with some Natural Born Killers style commentary upon the media (and gives the film its fleeting but important reference to black culture: witness the scene where a black woman comments on the fact that the killer is white), and the film has constant and persistent ability to link the personal and the political which demonstrates remarkable directorial control. The only tricky thing is that it is not really a thriller despite the centrality of the serial killer as a narrative and thematic premise. Genre fans will probably find themselves baffled in search of standard-issue cliches when in fact Lee reveals the killer's mania in savage bursts which act as stepping stones to which punctuate the other dramas which are in progress.

The performances are good on the whole, with Leguizamo managing to play a difficult part with several complicated personality shifts. Brody is also good, and support from familiar faces such as Jennifer Esposito, Anthony LaPaglia, Bebe Neuwirth, John Savage, and Ben Gazzara add interest (John Turturro makes a vocal cameo as the voice of the all-important dog). The film also features an almost constant seventies soundtrack which some may find irritating, but which enhances the feeling of relentlessness which is so important to the overall effect. This is not a cheesy or even particularly playful evocation of the 1970s, and is in marked contrast to even Boogie Nights in its use of the setting.

Summer of Sam is an excellent movie which is well worth your time if you are prepared to abandon generic expectation and get to the heart of the dramatic issues. It is unconventional and uncompromising, and a worthy addition to contemporary American cinema from one of its most important directors.

Note: The Region 2 DVD features a director's commentary not featured in the Region 1 disc. Lee was flown to London especially to record it. In addition it features the usual trailers and publicity materials.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.