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William Friedkin’s CRUISING is a Flawed, Moody and Misunderstood Masterpiece of Kink and Corrupt Law

This review contains spoilers of Cruising.


Trigger Warning: this article contains references to sexual violence.


The fetish scene has a fascinating place in history. In the context of the fight for gay liberation in mid-20th century America, leather and S&M culture emerged, and it was a place that promoted sexual liberation and freedom. It took a while for us to develop a better understanding of kink culture, and we’re still up in arms over its place in Pride Month. Such a discourse has stemmed not only from right-wing commentators, but also some members of the LGBT community. Kink is a world for adults only, and it encapsulates sadomasochistic sexuality, fetishes, and freedoms, but it has also been part of queer history, and both kink and LGBT scenes have worked together to fight against stigmas, homophobia, and misunderstanding. To erase kink from Pride is to ignore a relevant part of history and exclude members of the LGBT community for celebrating their identities while fuelling homophobic and sex-negative discourse.


Interestingly, the production of Cruising (1980) was protested by gay activists, who believed the film would depict them as depraved and violent, further stignatising them. Especially since Cruising was written, produced, and directed by straight people, there is some merit to why activists were worried about how the film could affect public views on gay rights. However, a careful viewing of Cruising proves that it was unfairly maligned before it even hit the screens. What used to be a controversial look at a stigmatised subculture is now a moody, raw, time capsule that offers the rare kink representation, mixed with sleazy horror, murder mystery, and Giallo elements. Judging by the current direction of mainstream cinema, there may never be another film like Cruising.


In New York City, there’s been a series of amputated limbs being disposed of in the Hudson River, and the pattern happens to be occurring near the Meatpacking District, where the mundanity of life plays out during the daytime. It’s only when night approaches that the kink community shows up, most of them wearing a variety of fetishistic gear, and embracing their sexual liberation. Whenever they walk the streets, though, there are cops that patrol them, and it’s a daunting sight. Their misunderstandings and feelings of disgust and homophobia claw their way into the atmosphere, making it as alluring as it is oppressive. A mysterious figure walks into a leather bar, observant of the kinky action, and is approached by an actor, Loren Lukas (Arnaldo Santana), where they briefly converse, and then later hook up at a cheap motel. We don’t see the sex scene play out, but the mysterious figure threatens and ties up Loren, who’s emotionally paralysed enough to realise there’s no way out of this harrowing situation before he’s stabbed to death. Amidst the subliminal imagery of gay anal sex playing out during the stabbing, the last words Loren hears from his killer are, “You made me do it.”


As the police identify Loren’s remains, Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino) realises the current case will lead to media pressure and backlash from the gay community if the murders remain unresolved, so he assigns officer Steve Burns (Al Pacino) to explore the gay S&M and leather bars in the Meatpacking District and track down the murderer, purely because of how he resembles the victims’ appearances. As he can’t tell anyone about the case, Steve creates a double life, posing as a single gay man, John Forbes who puts on the leather and begins exploring the bars at night. He’s unfamiliar with the scene he’s exploring and he’s unsettled, but as he gets more exposure, not only is he getting closer to finding the murderer, but he’s losing himself in the night and comes to a gradual realisation that he may not be who he originally was.


The world wasn’t ready in 1980 for what Cruising had to offer, even with the excision of 40 minutes of footage for the MPAA to grant it a wide release. It does not condemn the kink scene, and it is not judging its members for their choices. When Friedkin and cinematographer James A. Contner capture the action early in the leather bars, there’s a genuine fascination in the way these sequences are shot. The camera is up-close to the X-rated action that’s severely limited by R-rated boundaries, yet Cruising manages to create such a sensual, titillating atmosphere that it takes over the frames. There’s a sense of livelihood, community, and sexual freedom that it recognises, utilising location photography to create a sense of docu-realism and authenticity within these environments. The extras were real members of the S&M community that supported Cruising, and it is worth noting this rarity of representation in a Hollywood film that portrayed their subculture.


Upon learning the context that Cruising’s script was inspired by a series of unsolved killings in gay leather bars in the 1970s, it is easy to accuse the film of being exploitative. Friedkin cleverly circumvents this issue by using its murder mystery elements and S&M subculture backdrop to shed a brutally scathing light on law enforcement. Cops were employed during production to protect the cast and crew, which creates an inseparable irony in its social commentary, but that doesn’t stop Cruising from being critical of police institutions. Throughout the film the majority of cops express disgust about the rebellious nature and fetishistic appearance of the leather subculture and are unwilling to understand how their community works. They express little concern for the harassment, violence faced by the queer community as a consequence of persistent stigmas. The police only care when they face looming pressure from gay activists and possible media outrage, and even then their investigative methods are deeply flawed.


It is the treatment of two supporting characters that solidify Cruising’s anti-cop sentiment: DaVinci (Gene Davis), a cross-dressing sex worker, and Skip Lee (Jay Acovone), a suspect who has a reputation for being violent. When Cruising introduces DaVinci, they’re with another sex worker, and both of them get harassed by two cops, who coerce them into their car and force them into having oral sex off-screen. Before we meet Steve, we learn DaVinci is an informant for the police, passing on information that’ll help them catch the murderer, and hopefully ease tensions between the S&M scene and the cops. However, when DaVinci tells Edelson about their sexual assault, he accuses them of lying, threatens and dismisses them. That alone shows the overwhelming power cops had over the queer community.


But Cruising hasn’t yet unleashed its quiet anger at law enforcement institutions until Steve’s investigation causes the cops to hastily arrest and then brutally interrogate Lee. They use homophobic slurs, accuse him of lying, and bring in a Black cowboy in a jockstrap to slap him, a technique that the cops use to discredit any testimony the suspect may have against them. They then coerce Lee into confessing and masturbating into a cup so they can test his semen against those found in the victims’ bodies. His despair increases, insisting he’s innocent and he wants to see a lawyer, only to be denied this request. Eventually, his fingerprints do not match those on the murder weapon, and he’s free to go, but the trauma can’t be undone. He no longer appears for the rest of the film, but that scene doesn’t minimise Lee’s trauma, suffering and discrimination and contributes to Steve’s disillusion about his involvement in the case.


It showcases a bleak reality that the S&M scene had to face, and looking forward, we’ve gradually learned how fetish and hookup cultures function and their emphasis on boundaries, consent, rules, and limitations. Even then, there’s still a lack of understanding amongst those who fear and stigmatize the kink community. Police brutality still occurs towards minorities and it demonstrates how relevant Cruising’s social issues are. It may not have been written and made by people involved in the kink community, but Friedkin has done his research and shown respectful sympathy towards the people portrayed in Cruising, and whilst its controversies are understandable, to call it a homophobic work of art is to ultimately dismiss its thematic layers.


The actors playing the killer and victims keep rotating, adding psychological surrealism to Cruising’s fever dream nature and fuelling its murder mystery. Whenever a murder sequence takes place, there’s subliminal, split-second imagery of hardcore gay pornography, associating the murderer’s brutality with his sexual lust. While this is an artistic decision that can be taken out of context, Friedkin draws upon the complex forms of homophobia, both institutionalised and internalised. When you learn about the murderer’s possible motivations, it elicits pity and a sense of understanding but never a justification for his actions. He enjoys being attracted to fetish and yet he despises it. He’s compelled by the scene, building his self-loathing, hatred and knowledge of surrounding judgments, and he’s compelled to act out his violent desires. Rotating the actors between killer and victim not only creates ambiguity but a truly terrifying realisation that, no matter who gets caught, the real evil is homophobia. Simplifying the murderer to one character would strip Cruising of its effective tragedy and horror. The cycle of violence, hatred and shame will never end for at least one person.


Steve Burns is a fascinating character to think about in hindsight. There’s not much we know about him and he appears hollow, but his ambiguous nature does make him an intriguing character. He’s willing to go undercover if it gets him a promotion and a gold shield, and it’s where his career ambitions are juxtaposed against his personal life with his girlfriend. They’re both distant. Steve can’t tell Nancy about the case, both because it’s confidential and because its nature will lead to her opposition. It’s easy to see the story through his perspective as, due to Cruising’s partial commercial appeal, the audience is as new to the kink scene as he is. Al Pacino’s performance is there to hold the audience’s hand, guiding them through the immersive, kinky imagery that shocks and intrigues. Whenever Steve is undercover, Pacino slightly exaggerates his facial expressions and movements to remind us his character is essentially acting, yet he still plays into Steve’s unease, confusion, and familiarity as he explores the scene, further enhanced by Cruising’s nocturnal mood and occasional point-of-view shots. Even the sexual and sadomasochistic activity from Steve’s perspective is shot in a hazy manner, his gaze highlighting how sexual fetishes are being expressed in unexpectedly open ways. Only through repetition, montages and a great punk-rock soundtrack do we see Steve learning the ins and outs of the kink scene, and as he loses himself into the night, the action grows irresistible and attractive.


We never see Steve kiss a guy or engage in homosexual activity, and that’s where Cruising’s missing footage may have affected the cut a bit too much. Friedkin claims it consisted of only male pornography, despite some story twists that would affect audience views of the characters, but it still feels frustrating that Steve’s views of S&M subculture don’t always feel explored, and there’s a notable shift away from the clubbing action once Cruising hones in on its primary suspect. It’s a genuine shame that a director’s cut will forever remain lost, but it still leaves Cruising open enough to interpretation that its ambiguities become genuinely skin-crawling.


Cruising’s action is tame and not as perverse by today’s standards, but its sensuality and steaminess turn it into a powerful mood piece. It tackles a subject matter that most studios were unwilling to, and, in retrospect, Cruising has become a time capsule of what the night kink scene was like in the eighties. The internet age we live in has led to the prominence of hook-up apps and adult social media platforms like Recon and FetLife, allowing kinksters to connect online. Because the spotlight has shifted to some extent from kink clubs and leather bars, that scene is starting to feel like a relic of the past. Evaluating Cruising retrospectively is compelling, especially to see how progress has been made and that general social attitudes toward kink have become more understanding.


Cruising is a messy, flawed film. Its issues stem from its production controversies and MPAA-imposed censorship that affected the film’s narrative. It gets a lot right about the kink community and a few things that would be considered outdated, but Cruising’s legacy highlights how starkly underrepresented it remains in today’s cinema. It was audacious, raw and brave, especially in its portrayal of leather and S&M subculture, and we need more stories like Cruising, a stylish and terrifying murder mystery that pulls you into its rich atmosphere and focuses on being a mood piece rather than providing easy answers. Never has the imagery been so up close that you almost smell the sweat from the mens’ bodies, and hear the alluring creak of their leather gear. Its style overwhelms, its imagery titillates, and its material terrifies and intrigues. Cruising may not be perfect but it was far ahead of its time, and is worthy of greater recognition

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