Dir: Phil Joanou
Orion Pictures, 1990, USA
Blu Ray release: Second Sight Films (24/08/2015)
Starring: Sean Penn, Ed Harris, Gary Oldman, Robin Wright, John Turturro, R.D. Call, John C. Reilly, Joe Viterelli and Burgess Meredith
Many great films have been buried by unforeseen circumstances, be it the hype and box-office draw surrounding a more commercial release or an unfortunate similarity to another picture opening in the same week. William’s Friedkin’s terrific existential thriller Sorcerer (1977) was thought lost for years after being figuratively obliterated by Star Wars (1977) at the box-office and it took John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) years to recover and develop its deserved cult following after suffering diminishing returns at the hands of Spielberg’s much more audience-friendly alien blockbuster E.T the Extra Terrestrial (1982). Under threat of cultural erasure from Coppola’s The Godfather Part III (1990), The Coen’s Miller’s Crossing (1990), Ferrara’s The King of New York (1990) and, above all, Scorsese’s mob magnum opus Goodfellas (1990), Phil Joanou’s crime thriller State of Grace was obviously dealt a similarly unfortunate hand by fate. But thankfully, Second Sight Films’ terrific Blu-ray release of Joanou’s brooding neo-noir sheds some much needed light on one of the greatest and most overlooked gangster films of the 1990s.
Returning to New York after a 10-year absence, Terry Noonan (Penn) is quickly re-embraced by the violent Irish-American mob – the ‘Westies’ – he grew up with. Frankie Flannery (Harris) is now the boss of the organisation; his younger brother and Terry’s best friend, Jackie (Oldman, in his first prominent US role), is the impulsively volatile muscle. In recent years, their West Side stomping ground – Hell’s Kitchen (tentatively renamed with the much more genteel designation Clinton) – has started to shrink due to an influx of yuppie cash that is gradually gentrifying the Westie’s territory block by block, consequently forcing them into an uncomfortable treaty with the Mafia. However, Terry’s abrupt return, and his dangerous secret – he is actually an undercover cop – quickly raise Frankie’s suspicions and places further strain on his loyalty to old friends and his newly rekindled love for Flannery’s sister, Kathleen (Penn’s future wife, Wright).
Rather than offering a traditional rise and fall arc common to mob movies, State of Grace instead depicts a gang that is crumbling from the outset; the Westies are already locked into a seemingly inescapable decline by the time Terry has returned. Although the gang is clearly a very close-knit unit, they rarely possess the initial rollicking camaraderie of, say, Jimmy Conway and his cohorts in Goodfellas: a kinship that is accentuated by Schoonmaker’s breakneck editing and Liotta’s zealous voiceover. Instead, when this gang attempt to ‘work’ together, they stoop to malicious in-fighting; something that would surely make them look pitiful in the eyes of the Italians (who the Westies are so willing to impress that they kill one of their own). Frankie commands the organisation from outside of the Kitchen, all the way from his middle-class New Jersey suburb, and Kathleen has grown so embittered with her brother’s criminal activities she has moved uptown to escape the melee. Jackie is the only one who seems to care about the neighbourhood, but has tricked himself into believing his criminal career – primarily arson attacks on new apartment projects he decries as “yuppie nests” and beating/gunning down Mafiosi that set foot in Irish territory and so forth – is honourable behaviour.
State of Grace sees its three main characters simultaneously painting themselves into increasingly tight corners. Frankie’s alliance with the Mafia is beginning to look more and more as if he is simply being exploited by them; Jackie’s extreme propensity for violence – exacerbated by his heavy drinking – will surely not prove too good for his health; and the secret that Terry is harbouring can only ensure that he and the Flannerys, including his beloved Kathleen, will be driven further apart from each other. There is no glory waiting for anyone at the end of State of Grace, and the film eventually winds down to an ending that is – in the words of Eric Beetner – “somewhere between ambiguous and a real downer.” But it is true that no great film can be depressing; and State of Grace is a great film.
The acting from the key players is note-perfect. Oldman received the majority of the plaudits when the film was initially released; the character of Jackie allowed him to further demonstrate that no accent or manner could ever elude him. Despite him infrequently portending to the Norman Stansfield level of histrionics that would come in Léon: The Professional (1994), Oldman delivers a scary and psychotic character; one who keeps severed hands in his freezer so untraceable prints can be placed onto guns and yet is never entirely exempt of our sympathies. Harris is as intimidating and intense as ever, as is his chilly Lieutenant, Nicholson (R.D. Call), who looms ominously whenever Frankie is present. But most importantly it is Penn who centralises the entire film; in every scene he subtly conveys the right amount of confliction and anguish the role calls for.
State of Grace was photographed on location by the masterful cinematographer of Altered States (1980) and Blade Runner (1982) fame, Jordan Cronenweth. State of Grace would be his last feature film credit before his death. Cronenweth makes the most of some of the scuzziest locations ’90s Manhattan has to offer, particularly at night. The long, dark, dangerous Kitchen streets and alleys beneath the City’s imposing skyline are ripped straight from film noir tableaus; a city of deep, endless shadows and rain-soaked sidewalks. Steam escapes from every manhole cover as if Hades lurks in the sewers.
Like all great crime thrillers, State of Grace relentlessly reels you in, aligning you with the rationales of deeply problematic characters; it is impossible not to be acutely aware of what is at stake when their worlds begin to collapse. But because each of the main characters are so expertly wrought and performed – and because their lives and environment are so convincingly conceived – the film is elevated to a level of greatness scarcely seen in later crime films. Here is a string of terrific scenes, one after the other – consolidated by a seductive and bittersweet story – that keep coming until the film culminates with one of the finest shootouts ever filmed, a sequence that has more visual semblance to that of John Woo’s Hong Kong actioners than ‘90s Hollywood. It’s an artful, dialogue-free sequence that unfolds entirely in slow-motion without sacrificing tension; it is intercut, symbolically, with the St. Patrick Day’s parade. The sequence even pays homage to master director William Wellman. There is a brief moment of silence before Terry enters the Irish bar that will bear witness to the showdown – just as Tom Powers did in the genre-defining The Public Enemy (1931) – before the chaotic ballet of smashing whiskey bottles and the firing of .45 rounds begins.
Rather than be a downbeat two hours full of violence, character tribulations and gunplay, State of Grace shines because it displays a heart that is bigger than one might expect. Beneath all of the usual mob movie tropes – betrayal, brotherhood and the bonds of loyalty – is a beautifully simple story of interpersonal relationships and the toll that time and critical decisions can take on them. That such a theme transcends the usual mob movie trappings so markedly is refreshing and the overall result is poignant and exhilarating.
BLU RAY: IMAGE & SOUND
Given Cronenweth’s sublime cinematography, it was hard to ever conceive of State of Grace looking poor on Blu-ray. Needless to say, the new 1080p 1.85: 1 image is a massive improvement on MGM’s 2004 DVD release. The predominant interior visual palette is dark and smoky but close-ups always appear sharp and organic with no motion-blur or smearing. The image really shines, however, during the night scenes; the long- and mid-range shots of the soaked night-time streets glisten like never before and the deep shadows are unforgivingly black. Altogether, a terrific transfer.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track presents no problems either. The dialogue is always clear and the mix never gives too much volume precedence to the louder scenes – as is often the case with many newer releases. The biggest improvement is that Ennio Morricone’s gloomy, melancholic score (another underappreciated facet of the film) sounds much more present now; it has always seemed slightly muted on previous home-video releases.
First, there is a short but still very insightful interview: ‘Ed Harris on State of Grace’. The interview features the actor looking favourably back on his experience with the film, discussing what attracted him to the project and his thoughts on the film’s drift into relative obscurity. Then we have the extensive ‘Directing A Bunch of Gangsters – Making State of Grace’, which is essentially a much lengthier interview with director Phil Joanou. I have to admit that this is the first interview I had ever seen with Joanou and his enthusiastic, energetic and well-spoken manner reminds me of Paul T. Anderson. He also proves to be a very efficient and candid raconteur with plenty of anecdotes to share regarding his joyous experience of making the film, its disastrous release and ultimately its steady resurgence courtesy of cable TV. Overall, a very worthwhile supplement.
Being a huge fan of State of Grace – and the owner of every UK home-video release, including the VHS – Second Sight Films’ release is a momentous achievement that will grant a wider audience an opportunity to discover this film at its best. Although the disc is sadly missing a director’s commentary – which is present on the otherwise inferior Twilight Time release – Second Sight’s extras really do compliment the release; they might seem minimal, but they make this Blu-ray release an essential replacement for any previous editions you might own. And although it might appear trivial to some, I must admit that I am pleased to see the disc adorned with one of the film’s original posters (which, to declare a prejudice, is also the poster used on my VHS copy) and not the comparatively bland cover used on MGM’s DVD; it’s a great touch that shows Second Sight know their market.
State of Grace deserves recognition as a classic of the crime genre; severely overshadowed on its initial release, Second Sight have given it a new lease of life with this terrific and deserved Blu-ray.
- Liam Hathaway