Underrated: State of Grace (1990)

In the pantheon of great crime cinema that came out of the 1990s I have always felt that there is one movie that is criminally underrated. What better topic then, for an addition to the column fellow Joup writer Tommy introduced several months ago. I give you then, the next installment of UNDERRATED.

Since first seeing director Phil Joanou’s State of Grace sometime during the early 90s it has slowly worked its way into my top films of all time. Full disclosure: part of the reason for this is how strongly it resonates with the Irish in my blood. The film takes as its stage Hell’s Kitchen and the legendary Irish mafia that once famously populated it. And while on the surface State of Grace is about a group of childhood friends who grew up with the Kitchen’s own brand of Irish organized crime as their environment and inevitable prospect, look deeper and there’s a much thicker vein running through it.

Sean Penn’s Terry Noonan was the one that got out – he left his best friend Jackie (Gary Oldman, in one of my favorite Gary Oldman roles, which is saying quite a bit), a budding teenage romance with Jackie’s sister Kate (Robin Wright) and an inevitable life as a foot soldier in Jackie and Kate’s family business – organized crime behind and didn’t look back. Until he wound up with no where else to turn. You see, Terry’s path took him out of the Kitchen but not away from crime. Heavy life choices have made him a fugitive and he’s come back home to ask Jackie for help. Jackie and Kate are Flannerys and as such members of the head family in the Kitchen’s Irish mafia. Terry is accepted back into the fold with certifiable nostalgic joy by Jackie and a renewed romantic attraction by Kate, but other Flannerys are considerably more skeptical of Terry’s history. Jackie and Terry end up carrying out a succession of jobs for Jackie’s big brother Frankie, now the boss. Allegiances become strained as Terry’s love affair with Kate heats back up – Kate wants nothing to do with her family’s business and Frankie wants his sister to remain under his thumb and as far away from Terry as possible while he tries to figure out what this kid’s been up to since he disappeared from their lives an unspecified number of years ago. As he digs he begins to see that bodies seem to follow Terry, and Frankie figures that threatens not only Kate but his own strained relationship with the Italians.

Now, beneath all this crime drama – which is already as well-written as crime dramas get in my opinion – there is a lot more going on here. Terry Noonan’s return to the old neighbor happens at a time when it’s next on NYC’s gentrification list. The world these guys knew is disappearing on a daily basis.

Terry: Where’d our fucking neighbourhood go? I don’t even recognize the place.

Jackie: A bunch of yuppie condos. They could’ve left ten blocks for the Irish. They don’t even want to call it
Hell’s Kitchen no more. Renamed it Clinton. Sounds like a fucking steamboat.”

The underlying story is one that plays out on a micro level with the characters trying to come to terms with change as they age; changes in themselves (Jackie with his city disappearing, his sister moving “above the 40s” and away from him and Frankie; Kate with the same thing as she struggles to leave behind the people she loves and how she justifies that to herself; and Terry, well, Terry’s trying to come to terms with the place his choices in life have put him in in relation to everyone and everything he’s ever known. This same theme also plays out on a  macro level. The poor and working class Irish that defined the Kitchen for decades are loosing their neighborhood to condos, strip malls and a decidedly non-poor/working class population that suddenly surrounds them, gobbling up all the places that have defined their existence. When you don’t have a lot of money you make everything you have – your neighborhood included – the things that define you. If you loose that, well, you have nothing left. Just as Terry, Jackie and Kate search for what defines them in the absence of their old neighborhood and way of life becomes increasingly desperate, Frankie is the film’s avatar for the Irish mafia and its struggle to come to terms with loosing its own identity. Frankie’s desperation is in his alliance with the Italians, a bigger, more widespread organization that has prospered by the Kitchen’s gentrification. Just as every condo and coffee shop that goes up diminishes what the working class Irish of the neighborhood have left, these same hallmarks of progress shrink the power and domain of the Flannery’s organization. To cope he becomes beholden to the local don, and in the process effectively becomes a lap dog for what would have once been a rival.

Change, the passage of time and the way it erodes everything we know and count on in the end is the story within the story here, and Joanou tells it in such a beautiful fashion that I am always left breathless by the film. Also, the layered but not needlessly complex narrative is accented by a score done by none other than composing legend Ennio Morricone. I’m a fan of Mr. Morricone and I can tell you that State of Grace is one of my favorite scores he ever did. It is so perfectly of the time and place, both in the world of the characters and in our own world at that time that it really helps the film achieve a level that places it among the greatest in crime cinema history. However, while peers such as Scarface, Goodfellas and the Godfather are household names, iconic to the layman and the cinemaphile alike, State of Grace feels largely forgotten, and that, in kitchen parlance, is a fookin’ shame.

Phil Joanou’s film – written by Dennis McIntrye, who sadly passed away seven months before it was released – is a sweeping epic set within a few city blocks. It’s a neighborhood-sized crime epic that plays out in the quiet hours of the night, a story of friendship amidst a changing world. Set in the late 80s Terry and Jackie’s New York is on its way out anyway as Mayor Giuliani and Police Chief William Bratton will bring in the “Broken Windows” policy in just a few short years, and the nihilistic atmosphere that clings to them leaves the outcome of the film as inevitable as the gentrification of the Kitchen itself.

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

One Response to Underrated: State of Grace (1990)
  1. Tommy Reply

    Never seen this one…i’ll have to check it out.

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