Thursday, March 8, 2012

Overlooked Gems #25: State of Grace

Grade: 73 (B+)

Anyone ever heard of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas? Perhaps? Maybe? The answer is probably “yes”, if not “is this a joke?”. Yes, everyone has heard of Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece, inarguably one of the most influential films of the past twenty-five years and considered by many to be the greatest mob movie ever made. Here’s another question: anyone ever heard of State of Grace? Odds are fewer people are going to answer “yes”. State of Grace is a neo-noir crime movie that had the unfortunate timing of being released a week apart from Goodfellas,  and the film suffered by comparison. The film has been overshadowed by other great crime films in recent memory as well (most notably Carlito’s Way and The Departed, with which it shares some similarities). 22 years later, however, removed from its immediate context, State of Grace looks like a film worthy of rediscovery.

Terry Noonan (Sean Penn) grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, but he’s been away for ten years. Terry returns and gains notoriety when he shoots two drug dealers in a deal gone wrong. He reconnects with his best friend, Jackie Flannery (Gary Oldman), the screw-up brother of Irish mob leader Frankie Flannery (Ed Harris). He joins Frankie and Jackie as they pull hits and other jobs, all while trying to gain respect of the mafia. He also reconnects with Jackie’s sister Kathleen (Robin Wright, Penn’s wife from 1996-2010), an old flame who found herself a respectable job and wants nothing to do with the Hell’s Kitchen crime life.

State of Grace is directed by Phil Joanou, who made impressive advances as a director with the film before a series of critical and commercial duds in the 90s (Final Analysis, Heaven’s Prisoners); his most recent work was the generic football film/Dwayne Johnson vehicle Gridiron Gang. It’s a shame Joanou’s career has gone south; State of Grace doesn’t quite have the depth or ambition of Goodfellas, Carlito’s Way, or The Departed, but that comparison isn’t exactly fair, is it? Here’s a director with a great sense of time and place and a penchant for Hitchcockian suspense set-pieces. State of Grace is occasionally too writerly (certain lines sound a bit too flowery for Hell’s Kitchen dwellers), it goes on a little too long, and the climax, while well directed, feels a bit too much like it’s from another movie entirely (not to mention that the film’s ending is less an ending than a stop), but Joanou, screenwriter Dennis McIntyre, and the formidable cast otherwise create a taut-thriller with a detailed look at what makes the Irish mob members (and those around it) tick. Having a terrific score by Ennio Morricone, possibly the greatest composer of film scores who ever lived (Sergio Leone’s Westerns, Once Upon a Time in America, Days of Heaven, The Mission, The Untouchables…) doesn’t hurt either.

Whatever missteps Joanou and McIntyre make, the cast is practically flawless. There’s a terrific collection of character actors supporting the four leads (John C. Reilly, Joe Viterelli, John Turturro, Burgess Meredith), and Harris is well cast as a man willing to go to extreme lengths to gain power and respect. Wright, meanwhile, finds depth in what could have been a standard girlfriend role (see: the talented but wasted Anne Heche in the solid but overpraised Donnie Brasco). Penn and Oldman’s relationship, however, is the most fascinating aspect of the film.

SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH: As it turns out, Penn is an undercover cop brought in to take down his old pals. Joanou cleverly reveals this twist in the second act- all of a sudden Penn’s reluctance to get rough with certain characters makes sense. He’s tugged from both sides by his respect for the law and his loyalty to Jackie- he refers to himself as a “Judas cop”. Penn plays the character rather well (in one in a long streak of terrific performances in the 80s and 90s) as he taps into the Irish Catholic guilt complex that plagues his character. Oldman steals the film, however, as the unpredictable, shaggy Jackie, a man with undying loyalty to his friends and family and a need to protect his neighborhood from yuppies and the mob. Their relationship gives the film an extra dynamic that keeps it from being a standard cops-and-robbers thriller.

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