Spike Lee has always been known for pushing the envelope and creating socially volatile films. His first film SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT was one of the first times the silver screens featured a sexually forward African-American woman. Likewise, JUNGLE FEVER dealt with inter-racial relationships, and DO THE RIGHT THING, perhaps his best movie, gave clear, dramatic focus to racism itself.
Hence, it is disappointing to see the thematic sprawl on display in SUMMER OF SAM, Lee’s take on the “Son of Sam” murders in the Bronx in the summer of 1977. This brutal, visually explicit movie vividly re-creates the era with splendid costumes and music, and also yields some clever camera work, but its upsetting subject matter, dramatic inconsistencies and graphic depictions on screen give an SOS to the viewer.
Vinny (John Leguizamo) and his wife Dionna (Mira Sorvino) enjoy disco dancing on hot New York City nights. When he isn’t dressing hair during the day, Vinny enjoys committing adultery with his hairdresser partner, Gloria (Bebe Neuwirth), and sometimes seeking kinky sex from neighborhood friend Ruby (Jennifer Esposito). One night after a quick adulterous fling, Vinny comes across a police scene. A young couple has been brutally killed while sitting in their car. Vinny thinks this is a sign from God. He thinks God is judging him for his adultery. Later that night, Vinny tells Dionna that he loves her dearly and wants to be a good husband.
Panic ensues in the white neighborhood when more and more murders occur. The victims always seem to be dark haired young women, who are frequently killed with their boyfriends in parked cars. Everybody in the neighborhood is wondering who the killer, only known as “Son of Sam,” is. In fact, Vinny’s thug neighbor and the local drug dealer, Joe T (Michael Rispoli), has ideas about recently returned Ritchie (Adrien Brody) who has turned punk and has a proclivity to dance in homosexual strip clubs. Joe T also wishes to cash in on a Mafia bounty for the capture of Son of Sam. Eventually, the movie climaxes with the actual capture of the killer and a witchhunt for Ritchie.
There are many difficult and immoral scenes in this movie. Some viewers left the theater during them. For instance, Vinny has graphic sex not only with his wife, but also two minor characters and even some nameless faceless woman at a supposed “swingers” club, not the kind where Swing music plays. He also uses cocaine, speed and marijuana. Joe T acts like he has morality in his hatred for the killer, but he doles out drugs left and right. Likewise, Ritchie fornicates with Ruby and strips at a male strip club. Finally, the killing scenes are brutal and graphic, and, at one point, the killer seems to hear voices from a black Labrador telling him to “Kill. Kill.”
Vinny seems to have a God-given conscience, and Dionna goes to the Catholic church and prays, but Vinny clearly isn’t sincere in reforming. Ironically, if he just had communicated clearly with his wife about his likes and dislikes, he would have found out his wife loved him, but he ignored his wife, and sought sexual satisfaction elsewhere, to their mutual detriment and breakup.
The biggest problem with this movie is that it doesn’t reveal any motivation for the murders. The audience never knows the villain. He seems only to be a catalyst for this spoiled slice of life among clear sinners. Overall, SUMMER OF SAM lacks focus, and Sam, his son and their madness is one of the least developed parts of the whole movie.
Spike Lee certainly has skills as a director. At times, his writing is sharp and exact in revealing man’s fallen nature. However, this story is all over the place and doesn’t make for a compelling crime or mystery story. Instead, it revels in the sins of its thin, and sometimes completely stereotypical, characters such as the Mafia boss and the cops. This movie mainly features Leguizamo, who stretches himself from his regular comedy stick to this serious role, but he, his wife and his thug friends are all completely unsavory.
Spike Lee movies have never been big crowd pleasers and always seem to be targeted for niche audiences. Those who were upset at the explicitness of his movie GIRL 6, about phone sex, but might have enjoyed the humanity of GET ON THE BUS, will not at all enjoy SUMMER OF SAM. Disney is not distributing this movie internationally over its controversial and immoral depictions on screen, and they are rightly afraid to be tied to this movie. So should you. Not because crime or sin shouldn’t be explored on film, but because perverted sex, graphic drug use, strong foul language use, and no firm chastisement of them spells SOS – save our screens!
Strong pagan worldview with mild Christian elements as well as adultery & crime; 74 obscenities & 18 profanities; strong violence including numerous point blank shootings, severe beatings; strong sexual content including depicted adultery, depicted marital intercourse, sexual dancing, sexual talk, sexual innuendo, & a main character who struggles with interest in perverse sex; full male & female nudity (no genitalia); alcohol use; smoking, marijuana & cocaine drug sales & cocaine drug use; and, lying, anger, a transvestite character, & man falsely accused.