There is an excellent piece of social realism struggling to get out from beneath this bloated rock opera of a film. Written by the socially-conscious playwright Dennis McIntyre, State of Grace is set in the area of New York known as Hell’s Kitchen just before a wave of gentrification rebranded it with names such as ‘Clinton’ and ‘Midtown West’. Directed by a man still best known for his work with the stadium-filling rock bores U2, the film is a textbook example of what can happen when an inexperienced director refuses to rein in his own actors.
The film opens with Sean Penn’s Terry Noonan pretending to shoot a man dead in order to establish his criminal credentials. These credentials are necessary as Noonan is a Boston cop who has been lured back to Hell’s Kitchen in order to help the police bring down an Irish gang comprising most of Noonan’s childhood friends.
The Flannery family are the remaining dregs of the Irish-American gangs who once reigned supreme over the slums and docks of what used to be one of the poorest and most run-down areas of Manhattan. Really little more than a bunch of drunks running around the old neighbourhood, the gang is led by Frankie (Ed Harris), a man who would rather throw his own men under the bus than put up a fight and defend his own turf. Permanently flanked by a middle-aged enforcer in a suit and tie, Frankie only hangs on to power because the rest of the family are either too drunk or nostalgic to realise how terrible a leader he actually is. Case in point is Frankie’s brother and Noonan’s best friend Jackie (Gary Oldman), an absolute catastrophe who lumbers from one drunken mistake to the next. Unable to run a simple protection racket without coming to blows with each other, the Flannery family are living on borrowed time raising the question as to why the police would even bother trying to infiltrate them in the first place.
Shot in New York just before the gentrification of the 1990s turned it into one of the most expensive cities on Earth, State of Grace does an absolutely fantastic job of capturing the death-throws of a gang with roots in an Irish-American working-class culture that was slowly priced out of a city that it helped to build. Constructed like a proper drama, the film grounds each of its characters in this environment and then invites them to bounce off each other as they try to reconcile the contradictions of their daily lives. For example, Penn’s Noonan is driven slowly mad by his desire to remain loyal to his friends as well as preventing them from spilling any more blood. The same is also true of Harris’ Frankie whose desire to be a strong leader is incompatible with the fact that he has no power to wield other than that of betrayal. The conflicted nature of the characters comes across particularly well in a scene where Noonan’s relationship with Kathleen Flannery (Robin Wright) runs into trouble because she doesn’t want him to either arrest her brothers or turn a blind eye to their criminal undertakings. Thematically rich, carefully written and beautifully cast, State of Grace could have been a classic film, if only director Phil Joanou had managed to rein in his actors.
The film’s primary problem is that Gary Oldman starts off shouting and flailing only to become increasingly hysterical as the film progresses. Come the final act, he is literally stamping his feet and rolling around on the ground like an over-tired toddler. Oldman’s performance is so ludicrously over the top that it completely destabilises the rest of the film: Ed Harris’ muted and conflicted performance as the gang-leader comes across as flat while Robin Wright undermines an otherwise delicate job with one scene in which she suddenly abandons all of her character’s emotional toughness in order to rend her clothes and tear at her hair. Penn is arguably the best thing in this film as his double-dealing character gives him an excuse to ‘act crazy’ around Jackie and assume a more muted demeanour when dealing with Frankie, Kathleen or his police handler. Had Joanou decided to have a quiet word with Oldman then the film might easily have been salvaged but rather than reining his actors in, the director lavishes attention on them allowing even minor scenes to balloon into absurd melodramatic arias that rapidly overstay their welcome. This film should have been a tight, character-driven drama but instead it is a bloated and preposterous rock opera that drowns subtle themes and nice character moments in an ocean of flailing and bellowing.