Al Pacino had a rough 1980s. After riding high off of one of the most titanic runs in Hollywood history throughout the 1970s, with highlights like The Godfather I and II, Serpico, And Justice For All, and Dog Day Afternoon, the well ran dry real quick for Pacino once 1980 hit. Except for Scarface, which was a modest hit at the box office, every film he made was either more notorious for its controversies, like Cruising, or a complete dud that no one remembers, like Revolution. Not to mention he took a huge four-year break from film acting to do more theater work, and get in touch with his roots, so to speak. Once that period was over, he came back in a big way with the film that arguably saved his stardom from being in jeopardy: Sea of Love.
What Is ‘Sea of Love’ About?
Sea of Love stars Pacino as Frank Keller, an alcoholic, burnt-out New York detective on the hunt for a serial killer who finds their victims in the dating ads section of the newspapers. The evidence at the various murder scenes leads Keller to believe the culprit is a woman, since there’s always a lipstick-smeared object at the scenes, and the victims are always men (how heteronormative, I know). So, Keller and his trusty partner, Sherman (John Goodman stealing the show), arrange to go undercover, with Sherman as a waiter at a restaurant and Keller as a lonely guy looking for love, in the hopes of getting the women’s fingerprints and seeing if one matches. Enter Helen Cruger (Ellen Barkin), a divorcee who runs a shoe shop; their date goes terrible, and she leaves without taking a drink. Keller coincidentally meets up with her again, leading to them eventually striking up a real relationship, and Keller must deal with the possibility that Helen is the killer he’s been looking for, all while incapable of denying his lust for her.
Knowing that this film came out during the later period of the boom of erotic thrillers that dominated Hollywood throughout the 1980s, from Body Heat to Jagged Edge to Nine and a Half Weeks (we will never see a line-up like that ever again, sadly), Sea of Love had to differentiate itself from the rest of the crowd, and it chooses to do so by starting off with a clever plot device. The idea of roping in suspects by using a fake dating scheme just to get fingerprints is hilariously overcomplicated if you think too much about the logistics of how Keller and Sherman actually pulled it off, not to mention what a huge leap in logic it is to assume the suspect is a woman simply because there was lipstick at the scene and all the victims are dudes. But it’s still a fun scenario to watch Pacino and Goodman be so terrible at keeping their cover a secret, constantly on the verge of bungling the whole assignment.
‘Sea of Love’ Deals With the Power Dynamics in Romantic Relationships
What’s even more interesting than the actual plot is how it creates scenarios where the ever-shifting power dynamic between men and women who share an attraction for each other is under a microscope, even as it’s rarely explicitly mentioned. While power dynamics obviously play a role in almost any movie revolving around sex and lust, they usually treat the lust as more of a plot mechanic to get the characters to do the things they shouldn’t be doing. Even in Body Heat, which I would argue is the greatest erotic thriller of them all, the amount of attraction William Hurt‘s character feels towards Kathleen Turner‘s goes largely unremarked and unexamined outside a character occasionally sharing a sentiment of “boy, you’re really hung up on her.” In Sea of Love, there are multiple instances throughout where the film takes a specific look at how men deal with the attraction they feel for women and how they respond when it doesn’t go the way that they expect or want it to.
Regarding the bad date scene, it’s no small detail that Keller is a divorcee whose wife dumped him and Sherman is married but constantly acts out to show that he’s miserable in his marriage. Keller is so bad at hiding his “I drunk-call my ex-wife at 3 in the morning” cop energy that every single date he meets with sniffs out his discomfort immediately and bounces, while Sherman finds an immediate groove with a woman that’s into him due to this ability to be charming and funny. This serves as both a window into the central difference between these two partners, but it also underlines how ill at ease Keller is in the realm of dealing with women. When Helen shows up and immediately blows him off by telling him about how she believes in “animal attraction” and that she knows she’s into someone as soon as she meets them, he waits until she leaves before he angrily insults her under his breath.
Keller is someone who has internalized his shame and self-hatred over his failed relationship and alcoholism to the point that it’s evolved into a festering paranoia as it pertains to trusting women. When combined with his being far past burnt out on fatigue from his job and the stress of the current case, it creates an emotional powder keg where he’ll sniff out any perceived betrayal or uncertainty that Helen presents him with. For example, when he finds out she has a gun in her purse (for casual protection, she protests), he freaks out so bad that he locks her in a closet until she proves he isn’t in danger. It’s one thing to have a natural fear reaction to a gun, but when you’re shoving your date into closets, it might be a sign of a wildly damaged ego gone out of control.
The Possible Connection Between Al Pacino’s Frank and the Killer
There’s a scene where Keller listens to a 45 vinyl record of “Sea of Love,” a song that was found playing at the crime scene of each murdered man. He listens to it in his apartment in the dark and gets sucked into its spell of longing and lovesickness. He already knows this is the song that the killer uses as their calling card, and here he is emotionally identifying with it on a level he more than likely wasn’t expecting. It’s a moment of silent introspection that’s quite unusual for a film that’s ultimately another police procedural/erotic thriller. The scene itself could perhaps be much ado about nothing unless you consider how the film ends.
The big reveal is that the killer isn’t Helen, but actually, her ex-husband Terry (Michael Rooker), who was killing men that Helen was dating out of jealousy over her leaving him. It had been previously established by Helen that her husband was controlling and probably abusive, hence why she left him and is so defensive when it comes to her relationships with Frank. So, what we have here is almost a twisted fun house mirror version of what Frank could become, a man consumed by paranoia and wounded masculine pride to the point that it corrupts his soul. When Frank kills Terry by throwing him out a window (still the best way to kill a villain, in my opinion), it feels like he has exorcised the part of him that is dragged down by his past and learned to let go of his hangups.
‘Sea of Love’ Leans into the Psychology of Sex and Seduction
While there’s no doubt that this is indeed an erotic thriller where the main thrust of the plot is “please don’t let this person I’m dying to have sex with also kill me,” it’s remarkably restrained in its sex scenes compared to some of the more explicit films of that era. This isn’t one of those steamy cartoons where the sex is dripping like a broken faucet and the saxophone in the back row won’t stop playing; this isn’t to say that there’s no sex, but rather that the sex is played out in a manner that is more built on the underlying psychology than the actual physical activity. The film is less interested in the standard sensation of coitus and more intrigued by the way in which the underlying sexual tension manifests itself in ways outside the bedroom between Frank and Helen.
Take when Frank and Helen first try to have sex, and they are straddling each other against a wall engaging in foreplay. Rather than doing what Frank expects her (and, by extension, his expectation for all women), Helen briskly takes charge, pinning him face up against the wall, and engages in a kind of physical touch resembling getting frisked while she repeatedly asks him “What are you looking for?” You can tell that Frank is certainly not resisting, but is also at least a bit confused by having the woman be in the position of power. This won’t be the last time Helen will put herself in a position like this.
At another point, Frank asks Helen to meet him at the local supermarket and specifies that she shouldn’t bother wearing something. At the time, we don’t know what that means, until she arrives in just a long black trench coat and heels. Granted, we don’t “see” anything, but it’s clear she’s naked. What’s more important is that while she’s technically doing something submissive, it doesn’t feel like she’s at a disadvantage. She feels like she is fully in charge of herself, and Frank is as bewildered as he is utterly enchanted. This constant blurring of the line between how much Helen is willing to take charge and how much Frank is willing to trust in her is a delightful tightrope; I’d hesitate to call it kinky or claim it goes anywhere in a direction that would make Secretary proud, but it’s an extra subtext that makes the proceedings so much more delicious.
The Work of Al Pacino Shows Why Writers Are So Important
Such delicious subtext wouldn’t have been there were it not for the screenwriting of Richard Price. He was nominated for an Oscar for The Color of Money, he’s written films like Clockers, Ransom, and Shaft (2000), and he co-created and co-wrote the HBO miniseries The Night Of. His feel for New York is unparalleled, he has a knack for fusing colorful dialogue with philosophical rumination, and his plotting is brisk and snappy. In other words, he’s drastically overqualified to write a fairly straightforward erotic thriller/detective procedural. Sea of Love wouldn’t be as fun and sometimes as cutting as it is without him dropping dimes like Helen’s life philosophy that “there are very few mistakes in life that can’t be corrected, if you’ve got the guts,” or Frank cutting down his own marriage by saying “the wedding lasted longer than the marriage.” Al Pacino has said some wild stuff throughout his career, but I can think of few lines as wild as “come the wet-ass hour, I’m everyone’s daddy,” Sea of Love wouldn’t be so worthy of greater appreciation without his impact on it, and it’s work like his that shows why respecting your writers is so important.