Inspired by the ‘Son of Sam’ who terrorized the boroughs of New York City in the 1970’s, the film reimagines that hysteria through the eyes of an eccentric Italian American, one who is fighting demons in his own life already. John Leguizamo plays Vinny who is a hairdresser and a sexaholic despite being married to the wholesome Dionna, played graciously by Mira Sorvino. Essentially their tumultuous relationship provides the basis to the main plot, while the actual serial killings serve only as a backdrop to the countless infidelities and indiscretions throughout the neighborhood. In fact despite any influence the film makes little attempt to stand as a historical overview of the actual events, yet instead it delivers from an aesthetic standpoint with character development and a vibrant depiction of how uncomfortable it feels when anxiety coincides with fear.
Leguizamo is damn good as our hero and our villain, at least in a compelling indecent kind of way. He is hardly likeable but fun to watch, considering that he’s a ticking time bomb that was spawned in the disco era and is clearly too agitated to sustain life at this point. Perhaps it’s because he sleeps with anything that chews gum, including his wife’s cousin who accompanies them on dates as well as with his employer over at the local salon. Or maybe it’s his prevailing drug use as his charm and grace is only derived from cocktails and nose candy, despite the genuine love he receives from his better half that he predictably has little appreciation for. Yet the character is complex as it’s evident that he’s torn within his struggle of devotion and temptation, thus it’s a heavy dose of guilt that leads to his ultimate downfall, a separate affliction from all the terror that surrounds him.
The supporting cast and the city itself is what makes the film what it is, essentially a deranged tale that’s full of thrills however void of any real vision. Yet if there’s a message to be found it’s within the storyline of Ritchie played by Adrien Brody, an old friend that’s returned to the neighborhood only to be met by everybody’s judgment. The source of the hostility comes from Ritchie’s admiration of the punk rock scene, exemplified by his choice of clothing and hairstyle that is ironically deemed too provocative for Vinny and his noble constituents. As it turns out Ritchie does live a disturbing lifestyle, as he prostitutes himself to other men despite being ingrained in a budding romance with Vinny’s half sister. Yet despite how problematic that may be, how that qualifies him as a murder suspect is something only a pack of fools could explain; a stubborn rationalization that becomes their reality as the summer gets hotter and the body count continues to rise.
There are memorable scenes throughout the film, mostly involving Vinny’s manic depressive behavior that is reciprocated by Dionna’s unconditional love until she inevitably has enough. At one point when the couple gets turned away from Studio 54, Vinny persuades a reluctant Dionna to participate in an orgy with him at a sex club nearby, only to subsequently berate her for her consent on the car ride home. More drug induced logic infiltrates Vinny’s brain when he grudgingly agrees to set Ritchie up by handing him over to the angry mob, who are now convinced that they have their man, unaware that the real culprit has been captured and broadcasted all over the news prior that evening. In a pivotal moment of the climactic scene, Vinny tries to warn Ritchie right before his capture, only to see his futile attempt fall in vain as his old friend is left bloody in the street. With no honor left residing in his pathetic existence, Vinny walks away with the rest of the hooligans presumably down a path of a further detachment from the actual world.
Ultimately it’s difficult to say if this film is sufficient at all in including the storyline of David Berkowitz, the actual ‘Son of Sam’ who induced an overwhelming amount of fear throughout the boroughs that fateful summer. Some would say that if you are going to title a film in reference to such a profound moment in history, you would offer more insight on all the facts that surrounds it. Yet in this case Lee delivers in a way that only he could, by re-creating a vibrant city (always with the best cinematography) and by inspiring powerful performances (never without the help of great writers), that would satisfy most audiences even in spite of feeling misled. As it plays out Leguizamo, Brody, and Sorvino all get on base and Lee hits a homerun in an away game, considering that only 25th Hour is perhaps more removed from the director’s wheelhouse and comfort zone. In the end it is a film I neither love nor hate, yet I do believe it was a significant addition to his catalogue, as well as a positive indicator of what would come as he transitioned into the 2000’s.