1996; directed by Abel Ferrara; written by Nicholas St. John; 99 mins
Here’s a film that crept up on me! I’m on a run of Abel Ferrara films at the mo, with a mind to using one of his films as the start of a small series of related reviews* and in catching up on his work, I had to review this one at least.
A period gangster film, this follows the Catholic Tempio crime family, in particular brothers Ray, Chez and (in flashback) recently deceased Johnny, whose funeral it is. Over the course of a predictably fraught day, the surviving brothers and their families and subordinates rake over the events leading up to Johnny’s murder, trying to work out who killed him and beginning to re-assess their lives and the impact they’ve had on their families.
The film crept up on me because, even coming from the director of Bad Lieutenant, I really didn’t expect it to be as dark as it was. In setting the film at a point of high emotion, it makes the characters do some real soul-searching but we become aware that this is probably the first time that they’ve ever done so. This makes for an incredibly dark psychological melodrama, going places to which the gangster genre actually rarely ventures.
As Ray, Walken is reliably commanding yet surprisingly vulnerable. The tough, stalwart eldest brother who says; “I just don’t believe people die” and you see that this is the first time he realises that they really, really do. His kid brother very definitely ain’t coming back and it’s his adherence to violent tradition that has wound his brother up dead. Chez takes it much harder and watching this, it’s obvious that Chris Penn was a monumentally underrated actor. From the first time we see him – spluttering through a Molotov Cocktail of emotion at Johnny’s dead body – it becomes clear that something is unbalanced in him. As the film progresses, we see that his father’s suicide probably tipped him over the edge and he is now an uncontrollable hair-trigger, murderer and rapist.
In Ferrara’s films, though, the women are as tough as the men and Isabella Rossellini and Annabella Sciorra really give it their all. Upset but ready to weather the storm of fallout from their men and deal out their own home truths at carefully chosen moments. Benicio Del Toro is fantastically slimy and manipulative as prime suspect Gaspare and Vincent Gallo is full of confidence and arrogance as ill-fated, atypically Communist Johnny.
Ultimately, what’s most impressive about Nicholas St. John‘s screenplay (his last collaboraton with Ferrara) is how it slides out of the plot to become a character piece. A gangster whodunnit taking in gang wars and labour disputes gives way to a story of familial sin turning in on itself. Appearing old-fashioned amidst what was Tarantino’s decade, this is a gangster film that stands tall on it’s own merits. In keeping with it’s director’s preoccupations of high-mindedness amidst the bottom rungs of society, intellectually speaking, it mops the floor with it’s competitors.
*I will use that to talk about the director in greater depth.