State Of Grace Review

Back in the 1930s, Warner Brothers turned out hundreds of crime melodramas with 'socially responsible' plots in which the bad guy - usually the most entertaining character in the movie - was allowed to do anything, no matter how reprehensible, as long as he was punished at the end of the film. His fall from grace, usually preceded by a lecture from his ashamed mother or his concerned priest, was considered sufficient to deter the watching masses from embarking on a life of crime in tribute to their anti-hero. State Of Grace is squarely in this tradition of melodrama but, for reasons which will become clear, it insists on treating it as profound social comment. A host of good performances and some strong individual scenes don't quite atone for this basic conflict at the heart of the film - the struggle between artistic intentions and the hoakiest of pulp material.

Sean Penn, in a typically fine performance, plays Terry Noonan, a cop who moved out of his childhood home in New York's Hell's Kitchen at the first opportunity. Seeing that he was becoming a waster, like his friend Jackie Flaherty (Oldman) and that the only lifestyle awaiting him was as a smalltime thug, he rejected his background and his friends. However, the task of entrapping Jackie's brother Frankie (Harris), a mobster who hopes to merge his small Irish operation with the Italian gangsters who run the area, has fallen to Terry and he is forced to return undercover to his home. Grimly aware that exposure could lead to his murder, Terry's mixed feelings about going back to his roots become further convoluted when he meets Kathleen (Wright), Jackie's sister and Terry's first love. Falling in love again and finding surprising comfort in retying the bonds between himself and Jackie, Terry becomes increasingly unstable, especially when Frankie's loyalty to his Italian partners leads him to kill an old friend and tensions begin to spark between Jackie and his powerful elder brother. As Jackie moves from shambling incoherence to incandescent rage, it becomes clear that Frankie is going to have to do something about his brother and when Terry tries to stop the inevitable bloodshed, his cover begins to slip.

As the summary suggests, this could have been made in the 1930s with Jimmy Cagney and Pat O'Brien. That version would certainly have been a good deal more efficient than this one, which runs over 2 hours and begins to lose its grip on the viewer just when it should be tightening the screws. It's hard to explain just what goes wrong. It's certainly not the fault of the cast. Sean Penn, a fine actor now become an even better director, is riveting as Terry, his calculations about emotional distant meaning nothing when he's actually thrust back into his old environment. As he begins to come undone, he has several long monologues to spout and it's a tribute to Penn that he comes very close to pulling them off. We believe in Penn; he's an actor who has the ability to involve an audience in his character's fate and this is one of the things which keeps State of Grace watchable when everything else tells you that it's a lost cause. After this, he had a two year sabbatical which ended with his extraordinary performance in De Palma's Carlito's Way but he still isn't seen as often on the screen as he should be. Robin Wright, who married Penn soon afterwards, is very good as Kathleen, an impossible part which requires the actress to evoke at least three contradictory emotions at once and switch from distanced to sexually involved in the space of ten seconds. She has immediate chemistry with Sean Penn, as you'd expect, and she's equally good in a scene with Ed Harris where he tries to reach out to her emotions and she holds back. Harris, one of the greatest actors of his generation, is endlessly watchable in a part which underuses him. His attempts at connecting with Kathleen in the aforementioned scene are very touching, largely because Harris refuses to sentimentalise the character. Frankie is a bastard but he's a totally believable and recognisable bastard. In the role of Frankie - which is so similar to the character of Johnny Boy in Mean Streets as to be almost the same person - Gary Oldman is as good as his co-stars. Give or take a shaky New York accent, Oldman holds the camera and has a deep humour as well as an unpredictable edge of violence. When he explodes, it's scary but also blackly funny and, like the other actors, Oldman - refreshingly - doesn't play for sympathy. The rest of the cast are all professional and convincing with John C.Reilly standing out in a small part and John Turturro wasted in a one-note role as Penn's police contact. Two veterans deserve a mention. Firstly, Joe Viterelli, all courtesy and quiet menace, as the Italian mobster, and secondly Burgess Meredith, intensely affecting in one scene as an old man who can't make his loan repayments.

Nor can we really blame the screenwriter. This is Dennis McIntyre's only screenplay and it crackles with wit, invention and good dialogue. He's conjured up clever variations on scenes we've seen before and, best of all, darkly comic scenes of his own - I love the moment when Oldman produces frozen severed hands out of a freezer that he intends to use for fingerprinting weapons. There's an elegance to McIntyre's dialogue which emerges out of the expected stream of profanity and cliches. Equally, no fault should be found with Jordan Cronenweth's atmospheric, steely cinematography or Ennio Morricone's evocative music score. Indeed, Morricone obviously liked his work on this so much that he used virtually the same pieces again in his score for Bugsy.

No, the blame has to be placed on director Phil Joanou. Now, I don't want to pretend that this is a bad movie - indeed, in many ways it's a very good one and Joanou has to be praised for his handling of the actors. For a director best known for the heavily stylised U2: Rattle And Hum, this was perhaps an unexpected gift. The problems begin with the pacing. This is a pulpy melodrama but it's paced as though it were a modern American epic. Long stretches of the film contain so little happening that you wonder whether you're missing something somewhere. A second viewing confirms that there really is very little happening. It takes an age for plot points to be made because the director is too busy creating his mise-en-scene. If there really were something profound here then it wouldn't matter, but there isn't. He also uses slow-motion for no good reason and misuses it dreadfully during the final gun battle. When Peckinpah had his Wild Bunch slaughtered in slow-motion, he was making a point about the end of an era and the ironic glory of heroic death for men who weren't really heroes. When Joanou uses the same trick, he's just elongating a rather predictably staged action scene. The other major problem is that Joanou thinks he's doing something new when he really isn't. You can turn pulp into art - watch Walter Salles' Behind The Sun to see how pulp material can be renewed when its treated on its own terms and given almost surreal intensity by primal images and fast pacing - but you can't pretend it isn't pulp because every scene will simply come back to its source. This isn't bad in itself - pulp fiction is the staple of most great American movies - but if you try to make it what it isn't then you're not being true to it and you're not producing anything new out of it. This is Joanou's major failing. There's not a single reason in the world for this film to be any longer than 90 minutes and, at over 2 hours, there's a serious lack of judgement at work.

And yet... State Of Grace does get to you. Whether it's the performances or some of the images, it has a cumulative emotional power that is more affecting than you'd expect. In fact, I've seen many films which are better than this one but bits of this flawed film have stayed in my mind since I first saw it in 1991. I hear Morricone's music providing a soundtrack for my own memories and I can vividly remember Oldman laughing and pointing the disembodied hands at Penn and a number of other scenes from the film. I can't explain why a film which is basically so mediocre can be so powerful in retrospect but State of Grace is that rare beast; a film which plays better in the memory. It's definitely worth seeing even if you'll be frustrated by the occasional tedium of watching it. Joanou should have gone on to better things but on the evidence of Final Analysis and the laughable Heaven's Prisoners, the signs of an unusual talent here were misleading. Entropy was an interestingly personal misfire though, so maybe he's ready to make a comeback. State Of Grace, as much of a mess as it is, suggests that this might not be a bad thing.

The Disc

As an Orion production, this is now owned by MGM and they have released it on a barebones disc which isn't at all bad in terms of picture and sound.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. Initially, you will notice a horrible amount of grain but this is intentional on the part of the filmmakers and once the credits are over we get a nicely sharp, crisp picture. The level of detail is high, certainly better than the Region 1 disc, and there are no major artifacting problems. Nor is there the print damage evident which has plagued some of MGM's other recent back catalogue releases. Particularly noteworthy are the colours, which are impressively differentiated considering the limited palate used by the film. The bright greens of the climactic St Patrick's Day parade are stunning to behold because they offer such a contrast.

The original Dolby Stereo SR soundtrack has been remixed into a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Quite why MGM have done this is a mystery, although it's a clean and sharp soundtrack which presents the film to very good advantage. The front channels are used to good effect but there's not all that much from the rears or the sub-woofer. The stereo mixes on the other language soundtracks aren't much different from the English 5.1 track and I think the Morricone score actually sounds better on these. But this is still a perfectly acceptable offering with no particular problems.

The only extra is the original trailer, presented in anamorphic 1.85:1. Rather dull and self-important it's only worth watching if you like very loud U2 blasted at you.

There are 16 chapter stops and a wide range of subtitles.

State of Grace is a film which was underrated at the time - with good reason - but which is worth a look for the power of the performances and for the effectiveness of some scenes. It's deeply flawed but more interesting than some films which are more consistent and deserves an audience. The DVD offers a good presentation of the film and is well worth considering, especially if you're a fan of gritty crime movies.

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