Erotic thrillers exist on the knife’s edge between sex and danger. It’s a balancing act, and some of the standouts of the genre don’t just pull it off, they bring in a whole kitchen drawer full of other knives and balance on those edges too. Harold Becker’s 1989 film Sea of Love is definitely a kitchen drawer kind of movie, and the sharpest edge in its repertoire may be the one between trust and suspicion.
Al Pacino plays Frank Keller, an NYPD detective gone slightly to seed. He still has the necessary skills, but he’s ragged and brittle and at the end of his rope. His partner is his ex-wife’s new squeeze, and Frank has a bad habit of ringing them up late at night. He’s a man haunted by the ghosts of all his old passions, and Pacino nails a certain kind of emptied-out, functional depression. Then he winds up with a string of serial killings–men shot in their beds, naked and face-down, forced to simulate sex to the dulcet sounds of “Sea of Love”–and a new temporary partner, John Goodman’s lively Sherman Touhey. It’s a hint of freshness, the opening bud that comes before the bloom.
Since the murders appear to be linked to personal ads, Frank places one of his own, hoping to attract the killer’s attention: the department can comb through his “dates,” getting their fingerprints off their wine-glasses. Maybe there will be a match. (In an incidental moment that speaks to the sharpness and generosity of the Richard Price-penned screenplay, there’s an excellent, bittersweet interlude here between Frank and a slightly older woman. She’s trying to be hopeful, he’s trying to be kind, and it still winds up feeling like a gut-punch.)
In walks Helen Cruger (a magnetic Ellen Barkin). She’s stunning, smart, and charismatic, and at first she dismisses Frank before he can even get her to touch a glass: they just don’t have the spark of instant attraction she’s looking for. But Pacino and Barkin–his slightly rumpled weariness balanced against her bold intensity–do have chemistry, spades of it, and so it’s no surprise when another encounter with Frank makes Helen change her mind.
Here is where that constant dance between trust and suspicion comes into play. Frank does his best to date Helen without investigating her, even turning down the chance to send her fingerprints in after all, but the murders understandably have him twitchy and hyper-observant: is that a gun in her purse? What are those personal ads on her fridge? Did she know the murder victims? And if he keeps doubting her and lying to her, at what point would Helen’s friends ostensibly be advising her to get the hell out of dodge? (Answer: probably after he panics and slams her into a closet on their first night together.) If she’s the killer, there’s no hope of a happy ending for them, but Sea of Love also raises the poignant, In a Lonely Place-adjacent point that even if she’s not, there may be some doubts you can’t come back from.
The erotic thriller aspects work phenomenally as long as we’re with Pacino and Barkin, and the push-pull of passion and unease there is truly gripping. The actual, official murder investigation–the parts outside the bedroom–can’t quite live up to it, however (though it does give us more John Goodman, which is always welcome). But Price’s strong script–good on dialogue and color even in the scenes where the tension slacks–keeps things enjoyable even when some part of us can’t help asking, “When are they gonna get [back] to the fireworks factory?, i.e., any scene between Barkin and Pacino?” Additional highlights include a deep bench of familiar faces, from Samuel L. Jackson to Michael Rooker to John Spencer to Paul Calderón.
Sea of Love is streaming on Netflix.