A Look Back: Sea of Love
In lockdown, I’ve dedicated myself to rewatching movies I haven’t seen for decades, as well as some classics I’ve just never seen.
Falling into the former category is Sea of Love (1989), starring Al Pacino as Detective Frank Keller, John Goodman as Detective Sherman, and Ellen Barkin as femme fatale Helen Cruger.
Sea of Love marked Pacino’s return to acting after a four-year hiatus, as well as several unfortunate turkeys.
Keller (Pacino) is an alcoholic New York detective struggling with his divorce. He’s called in to investigate a murder where the victim is found lying face-down, naked, on a bed in a hotel room while the song, ‘Sea of Love‘, plays on the turntable.
Sherman (Goodman) is a Queens detective investigating a similar murder who seeks out Keller. When they compare notes, we learn they have a bullet, some prints (but they match nothing on record), and that both victims had rhyming ads in a single’s magazine.
They visit a third man who also put in a rhyming ad, finding he’s married and has young children. He claims he never followed up on his ad. He’s later found murdered the same way as the other two victims.
Keller proposes sticking in their own rhyming ad, meeting the women who answer at a restaurant and getting their prints on a wine glass, then checking them against what they got from the crime scene.
Through the course of the “dates”, Keller meets Helen Cruger (Barkin). She’s standoffish as she doesn’t feel chemistry with Keller, and walks out on the date without having a wine.
Keller later bumps into her and, after some repartee, a relationship develops.
Sherman cautions him that she could be their killer.
Keller gets her prints on a glass but then, feeling he’d be betraying her (and thus the relationship), decides against sending the glass for prints.
Other leads fall through, and the restaurant wine glasses don’t produce a match to the murderer’s prints.
Keller visits Cruger at her apartment, and while she’s checking on her daughter, he sees that she has the single’s ads for all three murdered men stuck on her fridge.
Shocked, he leaves.
Cruger comes to Keller’s apartment. He confronts her. She’s terrified that he knows about the men she’s dated. Keller just wants her to admit the truth, and says she’ll never be tried given his relationship with her. She’s confused. Keller thinks she’s playing dumb. She leaves.
A knock at the door later, and Cruger’s ex charges in. He and Keller fight. Keller throws him through the window.
The story ends with Keller, now sober, reconciling with Cruger.
Pacino is brilliant. He so effortlessly inhabits every character he plays and always gives compelling performances, even when he’s working with very little.
Keller has some nice traits, but they’re just bits of baggage to give the character depth. His drinking, his longevity as a detective (his anniversary is marked at the beginning of the story), his clinginess to an ex (now married to another detective) all have quick resolutions.
Barkin has an edginess about her that gives her character some spunk, rather than just making her the typical helpless supporting female.
Goodman is great – but he always is.
The first one/third of the story is dedicated to investigating the murders. Then that slips into the background and the relationship takes over.
Cruger is the main suspect, and they create the dilemma of the investigating detective caught in a conflict of interest.
But it would’ve been worth pursuing some red herrings. There is a delivery boy who’s suspected, but he’s only ever referenced. There is a deleted scene that involves his capture.
There are also several women from the restaurant sting they might’ve explored further – one an openly hostile woman who refuses to drink with Keller; and the other an elderly woman who feels she’s been brushed off because of the age differential, and then remains in the restaurant to later tearfully see Keller drinking with another woman.
Given the crime is the foundation the story’s built on, it feels odd that it’s a thread that’s neglected.
It’s not meant to be a relationship story, after all. If it was, we wouldn’t be hooking back into the crime for the climax.
It’s meant to be a balance between the crime, the relationship, and how each impacts the other, but after Keller decides not to get Cruger’s prints, that’s it for her as a suspect until the story’s climax.
The biggest problem is that Keller’s investigation doesn’t lead to the crime being solved.
He develops a relationship with Cruger. Her ex, Terry (Michael Rooker) – who has a couple of brief incidental scenes much earlier (although he’s not identified as Cruger’s ex) – gets jealous and attacks. That’s it. That’s how we learn who’s responsible.
Surely in a detective thriller, the detective’s investigation should uncover the culprit. The choices the detective makes, the leads the detective uncovers, the conclusions the detective draws, should be why the crime is solved.
That’s the biggest problem: the protagonist has no agency in uncovering the killer.
While the argument can be made that Keller dating Cruger draws the killer out, it was never part of a grand plan. It’s just happenstance.
The killer appears of his own accord and reveals himself.
This means we could just ditch the ninety minutes leading up to this confrontation.
The problem with Cruger’s ex, Terry, is that we don’t know that the ex is meant to be a player in the crime.
Cruger makes one reference to him not being a great guy, but that’s it. Terry’s scenes are so early in the story, and so insignificant, that when he reappears, you have to search your memory to work out who he is.
They could’ve sprung the Easter Bunny as the villain, and it would’ve meant as much.
It would’ve been worth Cruger explaining he was violent, but then creating a character contrary to what she’s telling us: he could be an upstanding citizen, somebody with a profile, who accuses her of the same things she accuses him of. Perhaps if Keller investigated, he might’ve found he had a restraining order on her to further muddy the issue.
Keller might’ve begun to pursue Terry for personal reasons, rather than professional ones. Keller might’ve even been taken from the case, or suspended, for his conduct.
Then if you’d given more time to the other suspects, you would’ve had a genuine mystery.
There could’ve been several possible conclusions then.
Keller might’ve wrongly arrested or killed Terry so he could have Cruger. However, this doesn’t fit in with the sweet relationship aspect of the story.
Keller might’ve openly flirted with Cruger to draw Terry out, and then you could have the ending they did use.
Or you could use Terry as a red herring to pin the blame on one of the earlier suspects, such as the earlier date, who might’ve resented being brushed off.
I still enjoyed Sea of Love. It’s worth watching for the performances, and the chemistry of Pacino and Barkin, as well as Pacino and Goodman.
It’s hardly a classic, but it’s a solid detective thriller.