State Of Grace (1990): Scuzzy Irish hoodlums duke it out in Hell’s Kitchen

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1990 was actually a solid year for crime cinema. Goodfellas overshadowed the release of just about any other film in those particular 365 days and went on to be recognised as one of the most iconic and seminal movies ever created. Mike Figgis’ excellent police corruption thriller Internal Affairs, the devastating Kevin Costner-helmed Revenge by Tony Scott and King Of New York, Abel Ferrara’s ultra-violent gangland update of the classic Robin Hood tale, all proved to be hard-nosed and substantive portraits of vicious criminals doing whatever the hell they pleased while abiding their own twisted codes of conduct. Sidney Lumet’s Q&A, Stephen Frears’ madcap neo-noir The Grifters and the inimitable Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing were more idiosyncratic but nevertheless innovative and punchy additions to the annum’s gallery of outlaw cinema, but anyway, I digress. It was a very good year, as Francis Albert would say.

One particularly overlooked gem from 1990 is Phil Joanou’s breakthrough (and still best) effort State Of Grace. With its themes of a crippling identity crisis, loyalty trumping all, the overwhelming experience of rekindled love and a particularly unglamorous and unforgiving account of organised crime, the film has rightfully accrued a strong cult following. Supplemented by extremely meritorious performances from a big-name cast who were then still up-and-coming, it is an immersively poignant and scary look at the ties that bind and the evil that can break them.

Terry Noonan (Sean Penn) is a working-class Irish-American fellow on the wrong side of the tracks. Having just gunned down two men in a drug deal gone awry, Terry threatens his criminal partner into silence and makes haste for his hometown of Hell’s Kitchen, a notorious neighbourhood on the west side of Manhattan, New York City. Equipped with brooding hypervigilance and a mean thirst for the old booze, Terry appears to be in dire psychological straits, and the calling of the streets of his youth offers some potential respite.

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Sauntering into a rowdy local bar adorned with clover designs and blasting out Pogues tunes, Terry becomes reacquainted with his childhood best friend, Jackie Flannery (Gary Oldman). To say that Jackie is a dangerous person to be around is rather like saying that Charles Bukowski enjoyed a nightcap. A grungy, wiry dipsomaniac with a psychotic temper who is as ready to pull a gun as he is to engage in fisticuffs, Jackie is a career criminal who has never left the Kitchen, and he’s about two seconds away from knocking Terry’s block off before realising that the overfamiliar stranger is actually his oldest pal engaging in a bit of banter.

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Jackie earns his livelihood as an enforcer for the ruling local crime syndicate that the two had some loose affiliation with as younger men. Nowadays, the head of this outfit is Jackie’s older brother, Frankie Flannery (Ed Harris). In stark contrast to Jackie’s treatment of every day as if he were living in the Wild West, Frankie is an icy and composed gentleman, complete with dignity of dress sense and a lovely house in the New Jersey suburbs, a whole state away from where his brother and the other goons conduct their nefarious daily moneymaking operations. Frankie is very suspicious of Terry’s sudden re-emergence and request for work, but he elects to give him the benefit of the doubt, ordering his frightening lieutenant Pat Nicholson (R.D. Call) to keep a close eye on him.

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As Terry is breaking himself in as one of Frankie’s footsoldiers, getting involved in debt collection, contraband and extortion, he also reignites a romance with the Flannery brothers’ younger sister Kate (Robin Wright), the woman he left without saying goodbye all of those years ago. Now working in a downtown hotel, Kate keeps her brothers at arm’s length but can’t ignore her feelings for Terry, hoping to penetrate the mystery of his unceremonious disappearance and see if they can truly pick up where they left off. Unfortunately for Kate, and everyone else, Terry is harbouring a rather dark secret.

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He’s a police officer. The NYPD has been after the Flannery organisation for years, and given that Terry is familiar with the old neighbourhood and the characters within, he is the perfect choice for an undercover investigation. The threat of gentrification looming in the air, the Flannerys have brokered a deal with local Mafia boss Joe Borelli (Joe Viterelli), an omnipotent Cosa Nostra Don who will supply the Irish mobsters with a huge payoff in exchange for relinquishing their turf and businesses and leaving the state. A thoroughly ruthless sport, Frankie refuses to allow any potential upset to this plan even if it requires the most despicable, Machiavellian behaviour. Torn between his love for both Kate and Jackie and his sworn duty, Terry is in an impossible limbo, his instincts telling him that whether he surreptitiously sticks to the guns of his nostalgia and ethnic pride or actively sends his old comrades to prison, he is doomed either way.

While there is certainly action that drives the narrative, the lynchpin element that makes State Of Grace ultimately work is the utterly believable flesh-and-blood characters. We can only paint a picture of their past in our heads (a method I prefer, flashbacks need to be substantive and necessary if used at all), but the chemistry between the focal players works incredibly well. Penn infuses the character of Terry with his quintessentially reserved charisma, generating a palpable reaction of caring and feeling intimidated when in the company of Oldman’s Jackie. In a show-stealing performance, Oldman also elicits the same reaction from the viewer, his unpredictable nature and propensity for incredible violence counterbalanced by the genuine and unshakeable sentiment that he feels for his home and the people he grew up with. Jackie certainly isn’t a ‘nice guy’, but he has a more complex spectrum of emotion than we’d initially give him credit for, wholeheartedly believing in old-school rules about territory, honour and looking after those that look after you. The film is inspired by the real-life ‘Westies’, an Irish-American gang who dominated Hell’s Kitchen through the 70s and 80s, and Oldman’s wildman performance is perfectly evocative of the gang’s reputation for being legendarily out of control.

In contrast to the tribalistic pride felt by Jackie, Terry and the lower-level muscle, Frankie is a cold pragmatist entirely motivated by money. He has no patience for sentiment or lack of discipline, his daunting intolerance for failure perfectly communicated in Harris’ dead eyes and stern reprimands. Frankie is essentially no different to the yuppies who have incidentally signed the death warrant of his criminal empire, being indifferent if not outright contemptuous toward anything that isn’t conducive to his material gain and comfort. His inclination to upward mobility and escape is replicated in his sister Kate, though her utter rejection of the criminal lifestyle sets her up as a disloyal snob in Frankie’s eyes. Wright is pitch-perfect in her portrayal of the sole female Flannery, just as tough as her brothers though in different ways. It stands to reason that Terry is never quite sure which sibling he should be scared of the most.

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Ennio Morricone, the monarch of film composers whom we sadly lost last month, orchestrated the score, and what a thing of beauty it is. An equal parts plaintive and disturbing arrangement of winds and strings, it’s an expertly coordinated soundtrack that bolsters the already immersive moods that prevail throughout the work, perfectly underpinning the film’s depiction of gangsterism for the abyss that it is. It goes hand-in-hand with Jordan Cronenweth’s cinematography, the desolate and uncomfortable greyness of NYC slums and dive bars fortifying the menace and despair. The film’s use of The Pogues, U2, The Rolling Stones & Guns N’ Roses provides appropriate nods to Irish culture and the foolhardy hellraising that the Westies became infamous for.

It remains an annoyingly underrated film, but I’m thankful for the slew of people who love it. Staunch and organic acting, a great street-smart script, good tunes and well-crafted tension all add up to a very powerful experience that is moving, thrilling and dour all at once. Joanou hasn’t offered anything of the same calibre since, but I suppose it’s better to be a one-hit-wonder as a director than never at all. A truly great achievement, if you’ve seen it before then stick it on again, and if you’ve yet to watch, prioritise it now.

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