I wasn’t really sure to feel about State of Grace, Phil Joanou’s sophomore film – it’s a bit of a curate’s egg. On the one hand, it’s clearly aiming to create an Irish gangster epic to rival that of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. There’s something ambitious and impressive about that. At the same time, it falls dramatically short of the atmosphere of both those films as well as – more importantly – Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, which was released the same year. Yet that very failure is interesting, since it makes you wonder what would have happened if Goodfellas hadn’t been such a resounding success or had even been released further away from State of Grace. In all likelihood, the 90s gangster film wouldn’t have been as thoroughly Italian – or European – as it turned out to be, since, in retrospect, there’s something distinctively incongruous about Joanou’s vision at the beginning of a decade that would spawn so many revisions, deconstructions and unofficial sequels to Coppola’s vision. As it so happened, it wasn’t until Scorsese’s own Gangs of New York that another attempt would be made at a definitive Irish crime epic, but even the relative failure of that project means that the ambition of State of Grace still feels largely unfulfilled.
In retrospect, it’s also not difficult to see why this wasn’t a bigger critical or commercial success (in all my time browsing through 90s video stores, I never once came across it). As it stands, the narrative has two distinct strands. Firstly, there’s a plot centriing around Terry Noonan (Sean Penn) who returns to his home neighbourhood of Hell’s Kitchen after ten years in Boston, during which time he has – unbeknownst to his friends – become a policeman. When he arrives back, Terry almost immediately makes contact with an old flame, Kathleen Flannery (Robin Wright), and the scenes between these two characters are some of the best in the film. At the same time, however, there is another plot, centring around Kathleen’s two brothers – Frankie (Ed Harris), who is the head of the local Irish crime syndicate and Jackie (Gary Oldman), his wayward, impulsive and highly “unprofessional” brother. For the most part, the film alternates between Terry and Kathleen’s fractured romance and Frankie and Jackie’s fractured relationship – both situations in which each party has to choose between family and professional alliances – but these two strands never quite meet up in a fulfilling or sustained way, even as they’re too entangled and intertwined for the film to play as a ensemble drama proper either.
As a result, Penn’s role, in particular, feels quite undefined, since he’s the notional protagonist, at least for large stretches of the story. Add in his relationship with his handler, played by John Turturro, and he often feels like he’s standing in for the connective tissue that the film doesn’t really evince. At moments, it feels as if the script was, at one point, more about Terry’s uncertainty around whether or not to betray the Kennedys, but that doesn’t come through as much in the direction, leaving Penn to wander in a no-man’s land in which he tends to be reacting to events rather than acting in any kind of intentional manner. To some extent, that works well, since there’s something irreducibly introspective and reflective about Penn’s face that always makes it feel as if he is bearing witness in some way, which is perhaps why he makes so much sense as a director of films about social justice issues. Certainly, whenever I “picture” Penn as director, it’s with the same facial expressions that he displays here, which work beautifully when paired with Wright’s own inscrutability – compatible, somehow with Penn’s, but also different and unique to her. As might be expected, that gives their romantic encounters a genuinely enigmatic and evocative quality, especially in one wonderful sequence in which Joanou is merely content to train the camera on them as they amble down a particularly long Manhattan block. In a film that often feels stylised at every turn, their rapport feels authentic and improvised, as if they were discovering new things about each other in the process of playing their characters.
To some extent, that sense of slow-building inscrutability is also there in the supplementary narrative, thanks to one of the most smouldering performances in Harris’ career. But the kinetic hyperactivity of Oldman’s character tends to cut against that and while the resultant contrast is what makes him so volatile across Joanou’s mise-en-scenes, it continually sets up a promise of a more action-driven film that is just as continually rescinded. Worse, it seems to prompt Joanou to slow things down to compensate, creating quite a turgid and ponderous tone that often sacrifices character plausibility and recalls the heightened Boston melodrama of Dennis Lehane’s novels, especially in the closing sequence – set during a St. Patrick’s Day – that plays as something of a dress rehearsal for Mystic River. If the film seems to proceed in slow motion, then that reaches its logical conclusion here, with Joanou shooting the final ten minutes at half-speed to create quite a limp, directionless end to the film as a whole. After all, simply slowing something down doesn’t necessarily make it more engaging or profound, and with bullets and globs of fake blood flying through the air it’s hard not to escape the sense that this pomposity and self-seriousness (combined with a running time of over two hours) is largely unearned. At its worst, it’s almost comic – it could easily be a Naked Gun sketch – in the way in which it equates slow cinema with the historical and cultural gravitas that it is trying to curate and elegise, and the result is finally more dirge than gangster film, although without the steady and stable focus that makes the best dirges so hypnotic and entrancing.
That said, that very process also allows Joanou to draw out the male melodrama latent in most gangster films in an interesting way, since this is also pretty much a male weepie, more interested in the failure of men to communicate with women and with each other than in the actual business of being a gangster (or only interested in the business of being a gangster insofar as it hinges upon these failures of communication). As a result, Joanou’s doesn’t display any of Coppola or Scorsese’s interest in procedural and professional niceties – all the ethical quandaries are drawn with the broadest strokes possible, in order to leave room for this failure to communicate to come to the surface, as well as the histrionic, hyperbolic, melodramatic energy that it unleashes. In that sense, the relative incoherence of the film as a whole – both tonally and narratively – works quite well, leaving the viewer with a sense of frustrated possibilities – a failure to make proper connections – that is the common denominator between all the characters as well. For me, one of the hallmarks of melodrama is a tendency towards overdetermined conclusions – endings that wrap everything up so intensely and dramatically that they feel compensatory, and so end up making you feel all the latent frustrations and ellipses in the story more acutely. Something like that happens here, since from a certain perspective Joanou’s incompletions have a more enduring impact and more unsettling import than the perfectly preened and aesthetically judicious final act of Goodfellas, one of the most poised and tasteful of all Scorsese’s films, even or especially at its most brutal and unforgiving.
For that reason, State of Grace often reminded me of Michael Caton-Jones’ City by the Sea, released in 2002. While the two films are quite different in tone and subject matter, they’re both interested in whittling down the gangster film to this melodramatic kernel, the difference being that Joanou does this on the verge of the 90s gangster film (and as a kind of revision of the 70s gangster film), whereas Caton-Jones does it at the end of the 90s gangster cycle. Between them, however, they seem to bookend that cycle, not least because of their interest in bearing witness to the vanishing milieu of gangsterdom. In City by the Sea, it’s Long Beach, New York (filmed partly in Asbury Park, New Jersey for a double elegiac whammy), whereas in State of Grace it’s Hell’s Kitchen, which would become completely unrecognisable by the end of the 90s. Setting his scenes largely in lofts and along the pavements of an ungentrified downtown – there’s a similar curatorial impulse here to Sidney Lumet’s New York films – Joanou scrupulously avoids areas that have been yuppified, culminating with a climactic final meeting between Frankie and Jackie that is changed, at the last minute, from Battery Park to Pier 84. It’s no coincidence, then, that the Irish mob regularly joke about the rebranding of Hell’s Kitchen as Clinton Hill, nor that Frankie often frames their organisation as a war against yuppies as much as a war against the Italian Mafia. In a very real way, it feels as if both the gangsters and the film are fighting for a narrowing window of real estate – and the more it contracts the more melodramatic everything becomes, until this feels like the last real working-class gangster epic that can plausibly situate itself on Manhattan Island, paving the way for the more corporate crime thrillers of the 90s.