' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: State of Grace (1990)

Friday, November 17, 2023

Friday's Old Fashioned: State of Grace (1990)

“State of Grace” was released into theaters on September 14, 1990, five days ahead of another little movie, maybe you’ve heard of it, “Goodfellas.” Given that they were both mob movies, the latter was destined to drown out the former, turning it into a box office flop gone from theaters virtually overnight. It’s doubly unfortunate because “State of Grace” isn’t really in the “Goodfellas” vein anyway, but more akin to “The Godfather,” not so much going for Scorsese’s romantic rug-pulling as mere romance, with big slabs of emotion that, unfortunately, can sometimes tend toward the overwrought, like the concluding slow-motion shootout and how director Phil Joanou shoots and lights even scenes at barstools to look like church confessionals. And if it suffered from its release date, it also suffers through the prism of time, because the main story in which lines blur between duty and friendship as undercover cop Terry Noonan (Sean Penn) infiltrates the Irish American gang of Frankie Flannery (Ed Harris) by reinvigorating his childhood friendship with Frankie’s wildcard brother Jackie (Gary Oldman) was ultimately done with, well, more grace in 1997’s “Donnie Brasco.” Not to sell “State of Grace” short out of the gate here, my apologies, it’s just that it’s one of those movies where the stuff on the margins frequently eclipses the stuff at the center, a movie with character and of characters.

“State of Grace” was written by Dennis McIntyre, a Detroit-born playwright, and so it makes sense it would excel at texture. The setting is the present-day, meaning that setting, Hell’s Kitchen, is being gentrified, an idea that lingers over the whole movie. At one point, Jackie leads Terry in torching some fancy high rise being built, the two men sprinting through the flames, an effective moment that both demonstrates Jackie’s loose cannon nature and a larger fatalistic feeling about their whole way of life. Frankie, meanwhile, often comes across less like some frightening big shot than the one adult in a violent romper room trying to maintain control, as he does when his gang’s attempt to shake down a bar owner ends in a brawl instead and Frankie trying to put out the figurative fire, epitomizing how Harris effuses so much tension just below the surface of his otherwise tightly controlled performance. There is even texture that the film itself didn’t bring. This is the movie where Penn and Robin Wright, playing Jackie and Frankie’s brother who is trying to leave the life behind, fell in love, and if Joanou never quite harnesses that blooming real-life romance in full, hemmed in to some degree by the standard issue love story plotting, there are moments when Penn and Wright break free anyway, like an early walk and talk on the street in which their chemistry is so palpable that it almost feels like a documentary. There are some things you can’t fake. That goes for Oldman’s performance too.

If the movie was a flop, Oldman’s turn seems to have lived on, cited as a touchstone turn by no less an authority than Leonardo DiCaprio in his 2016 BAFTA Best Actor speech. It’s easy to understand why. This is an actor’s performance, through and through, bursting forth with livewire energy yet far more controlled than his unhinged turn in the previous year’s “True Romance” where, perhaps encouraged by the maximalist Tony Scott, Oldman added so much actorly business that it almost became impossible to take seriously. In “State of Grace,” on the other hand, the volatile nature of his performance feels more channeled, all while crucially never making you feel as if the friendliness Terry feels toward him, isn’t believable. There’s not just a loyalty but a sincerity, even as that sincerity takes the figurative form of a car running toward a brick wall, sans seatbelt. And if in “True Romance,” Oldman often felt constricted by Scott’s camera, in one incredible shot in “State of Grace,” Joanou puts the camera on floor level and puts Oldman in a wide frame so that you can virtually feel him fill it up, a character too large for this world.

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