"There are many stories to be told in the naked city; this is just one."
This line, which is uttered during the conclusion of _Summer_of_Sam_,
could not better sum up Spike Lee's terrific film. The film's title does
refer to the serial killer Son of Sam, but, as that line says, that is
just one of the many stories followed in the film. More than anything
else, _Summer_of_Sam_ is a portrait of its chosen time period, the hot
New York summer of 1977. And what a vivid portrait it is.
Son of Sam (played by Michael Badalucco, also notoriously known as "the
44-caliber killer" for his weapon of choice, plays a prominent role in
the film, but not in the way one would expect. While a few of his
murders are depicted in horrifyingly bloody detail and his reign of
terror provides the film with its time frame, _Summer_of_Sam_ is
concerned less with him than his psychological effect on people in New
York City, namely the Bronx. Films dealing with serial killers often
tackle this angle, but usually the people in question are either victims'
families or the cops investigating the crimes. The characters whose
lives are examined in _Summer_of_Sam_ have no direct ties to the killer
nor his activities, but they are all profoundly affected by them.
The effects, of course, widely vary with the person. Dionna (Mira
Sorvino) more or less tries to live life as she always has even though
she fits the common victim's demographic of "woman with shoulder-length
brown hair." Her husband Vinny (John Leguizamo), on the other hand,
fears that the killer has seen him during one of his many extramarital
trysts and is thus a target. While not necessarily a reaction to Son of
Sam, Vinny's old friend Ritchie (Adrien Brody) has undergone a radical
personality change, embracing the anarchic spirit of punk rock, which he
spreads to old friend and eventual lover Ruby (Jennifer Esposito).
These are just the starting points for these characters; as the film and
Son of Sam's killing spree progresses, their relationships and
personalities undergo drastic shifts. While Vinny's less-than-blissful
marriage to Dionna is given perhaps the most screen time, the focal
relationship is between Vinny and Ritchie, whose deviant behavior leads
people to erroneously suspect him of wrongdoing. The actors give superb
work, and in the case of Brody and especially Leguizamo (of whom, I must
admit, I have never been a fan), career-best work, investing these often
unlikable characters with enough humanity to command our sympathies.
By extension, praise goes to Lee and his writing collaborators Victor
Colicchio and Michael Imperioli, who do a deft job of weaving the
fact-based stream of events surrounding Son of Sam with the fictional
storylines they have created. All the characters were going to do what
they do regardless, but, as depicted by Lee and the writers, being in
such extreme circumstances heightens the tension and thus gives them a
push toward more extreme actions. Even more impressive is how the story
is convincingly manipulated to spin around the entire picture of the
culture at the time, from the liberating abandon of punk to disco's
spirit of limitless pleasure.
_Summer_of_Sam_ ultimately belongs to Lee, who makes nary a false move
here. He has always been a great creator of images, and the ones he
presents here make a powerful impact. One memorable montage sequence
scored to "Teenage Wasteland" is a marvel of both freedom (in its driving
energy) and control (in economically advancing the story and distilling
the society's mood of the moment).
The visceral impact comes second to the film's emotional power, which
hits hard by film's end. There are no easy answers nor tidy resolutions,
which is just as well. _Summer_of_Sam_ may strike some as unsatisfying
in that sense, but that is what is what makes it such a convincing slice
of ordinary lives during an extraordinary time.