Looking Back: State of Grace (1990)

Why wasn’t “State of Grace” recognized immediately for its value as one of the finest mobster films ever made? I blame the studio. Coming out at the end of 1990, Phil Joanou’s drama had two giant obstacles to face: the competition and Orion Pictures, it’s distributor. To address the latter and to give them the break they deserve, Orion was in an odd position of releasing a handful of successful films that became Best Picture Oscar winners but also facing bankruptcy. It seemed for every “Dances With Wolves” or “The Silence of the Lambs,” there were dozens of Orion movies like “She-Devil,” “Erik the Viking,” “UHF,” “Valmont,” “Madhouse” and “The Hot Spot,” all of which were flops. When the big Oscar movie season of 1990 came around, Orion placed their bets on “Dances With Wolves,” which won the top awards, and not “State of Grace,” which quickly vanished from theaters.

The former reason why the film sank like a stone from public awareness during its initial release was what Premiere Magazine referred to as “mob movie overload,” as the fall of ’90 not only had formidable box office opponents, but some of the most celebrated films of the genre, then and today. Around the time “State of Grace” came out, so did Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” The Coen Brother’s “Miller’s Crossing” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather, Part III.” While a tough bunch to compete with, “State of Grace” is worthy of being mentioned with its formidable cinematic cousins and deserves to be embraced as one of the finest of its ilk, in a year that gave us some of the best mob movies in memory.

Sean Penn stars as Terry Noonan, a Hell’s Kitchen, New York youth returning to his old neighborhood after a ten-year absence. He encounters Kathleen (played by Robin Wright), the one he loved but left behind), Jackie (played by Gary Oldman), Terry’s best deranged best friend and Kathleen’s brother and Frankie (played by Ed Harris), the crime boss who oversees the business and commands the respect and fear of the neighborhood. We learn the film’s big narrative reveal, which is so good I won’t even hint at it. The story unfolds as a Brother’s Keeper tale, with Terry trying to protect the self-destructive Jackie and reconcile with Kathleen. As Terry tries to reestablish a broken family unit, the moral rot of Frankie’s hold over the neighborhood poisons those around him.

Joanou was an acclaimed music video director and a favorite of Steven Spielberg, who hired him to direct an episode of his “Amazing Stories” TV series, before producing his “Three O’Clock High” (a film Spielberg took his name off of). His debut film flopped (though carries a hearty cult following), though Joanou bounced back with the striking U2 documentary, “Rattle and Hum.” Joanou’s “State of Grace” followed and, while he later made other films, this is still his best.

The screenplay (the only one by the late Dennis McIntyre, who died seven months before the film’s release) wisely allows the characters to be the driving force. The Brother’s Keeper angle isn’t new, though its rarely told this well. In fact, while it’s arguably not as strong as “Goodfellas,” this is superior to “The Departed.”

It’s definitely an actor’s movie, with the four lead turns so golden, this plays like an event for lovers of great acting. The first-ever pairing of acting heavyweights Penn, Oldman and Harris should have been enough to draw audiences, though (at this point in their respective careers), none of them were box office draws. Today, it provides a showcase of contrasting styles, varying approaches to modern drama and some of the finest work these performers have ever graced us with on the big screen.

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Penn underplays his part perfectly, finding the right choices and nuanced touches to convey his character’s tortured decisions and impossible choices. Oldman is, in a word, awesome; this is every bit essential as his early work in “Sid and Nancy,” “JFK,” “True Romance,” “The Professional” and “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” The key to Oldman’s take on Jackie: the character is repugnant, yet, you like him immediately and understand why Terry wants to save Jackie from himself and the urban cesspool around him. Jackie is a lovable monster, a tricky quality to pull off that Oldman turns into a flamboyant master class. Harris is a very different breed of actor, though no less intense and commanding than his co-stars. Coming off “The Abyss,” it might initially seem odd to find Harris playing a mob boss. Yet, Harris is both believable and scary as a power-mad criminal. Wright is exceptional in what could have been a thankless role and more than holds her own, which couldn’t have been easy. There isn’t a bad performance or scene in the whole film.

Prod DB © Orion - Rank Organisation / DR LES ANGES DE LA NUIT (STATE OF GRACE) de Phil Joanou 1990 CAN / USA avec Ed Harris et R.D. Call mafia irlandaise, metro aerien, pont, banlieue, new york, terrain vague

The 134-minute running time dulls the edge of the story somewhat, as a tighter edit would have upped the tension after the unveiling of the second act surprise. Yet, to lose any of the character bits would have lost the heart of the film. Burgess Meredith’s beauty of a cameo, for example, isn’t essential to the narrative but is one of the keys to the whole film.

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The climactic shoot out (shades of Sergio Leone and John Woo) is amazing but so is, in its own way, the scene of an aborted assassination attempt (punctuated by a clock, the only visual reminding us this is from the guy who made “Three O’ Clock High”). When even the potentially disposable love story clicks, you know something went very right. This isn’t an Irish variation on a Scorsese neighborhood mob movie. Here’s a worthy successor to the best from Sidney Lumet and Michael Mann. The finest mob movies draw you in with the characters, not the violence. Joanou’s masterpiece drew me in from the first scene.

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