The Dark R-Rated Serial Killer Crime Thriller Is One Of The Most Controversial Movies Ever, Where To Stream

By Charlene Badasie | Published

Cruising, the 1980 crime thriller movie directed by William Friedkin, is streaming on the Criterion Channel. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Gerald Walker, which delves into the gay leather bar subculture of New York City during the late 1970s. The story follows Steve Burns (Al Pacino), a young NYPD officer who goes undercover to catch a serial killer targeting gay men.

Al Pacino is Detective Steve Burns

Cruising Movie 1980

The Cruising movie is set during a scorching summer in New York City. When dismembered bodies of men start appearing in the Hudson River, the police suspect that a serial killer is luring gay men from West Village bars to cheap motels where they are murdered. Officer Steve Burns goes undercover in the leather bar scene of the Meatpacking District to track down the killer.

Burns moves into an apartment in the area and befriends his neighbor and struggling gay playwright, Ted Bailey (Don Scardino). Burns’ undercover work strains his relationship with his girlfriend, Nancy (Karen Allen), because he can’t reveal the details of the case and grows closer to Ted, who is also dealing with issues with his jealous and controlling boyfriend, Gregory (James Remar).

The Investigation Takes A Toll

Cruising Movie 1980

The Cruising movie sees the case taking a toll on Burns when a suspect is beaten into confessing to the murders even though he is innocent. Disturbed by the brutality, Burns tells Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino) that he didn’t agree to the assignment to witness the abuse of gay men. Despite his exhaustion and thoughts of quitting, Edelson convinces him to stay on the case.

Authentic Yet Controversial

Cruising Movie 1980

Director William Friedkin drew inspiration for the Cruising movie from a real-life series of murders in the gay community, blending those with aspects from the book to create the story. The film was shot on location in New York City, with many scenes filmed in actual gay bars and clubs. While this added authenticity to each shot, it also contributed to the backlash the film received.

The controversy surrounding the Cruising movie stemmed from its portrayal of the gay community. Activists and members of the LGBTQ+ community protested against the film, arguing that it perpetuated harmful stereotypes and linked homosexuality with violence and deviance. Protests took place during production and after its release, with activists picketing theaters.

A Dark, Misunderstood Thriller

Cruising Movie 1980

The controversy was so intense that it led to discussions about the ethics of filmmaking and representation. Friedkin defended his work, stating that it was a thriller meant to explore dark themes, not a documentary or a social commentary. However, the protests had a lasting impact on the Cruising movie and its legacy.

Due to the backlash, Cruising was met with mixed reviews from movie critics. While many praised Al Pacino’s performance and Friedkin’s direction, the film’s depiction of the gay community and the ambiguity of its themes continued to harm its reception. The movie performed moderately well at the box office, earning $19.8 million on a budget of $11 million.

Modern Reviews Have Been More Forgiving

Cruising Movie 1980

Despite its contentious reception, the Cruising movie has gained a cult following over the years. Some modern critics have re-evaluated the film, viewing it as a product of its time and a complex exploration of identity and fear.