The Bad Old Days: Phil Joanou’s State of Grace (1990)

Gary Oldman in State of Grace (1990)

State of Grace was released in late 1990 when fascination with the Westies of Hell’s Kitchen in New York was at its peak. Though the movie is quick to point out the horror and pointlessness of much of the violence that happened during the era of the 1970s and 1980s when the Westies were in their heyday, it’s loathe to judge their actions with crudely-drawn character or platitudes.

Instead, State of Grace is a richly crafted character-driven thriller, that’s just as much about man’s need to belong as it is a eulogy for an era of New York now long gone, when neighborhoods in Manhattan were still home to long-staid ethnic groups with their own codes of conduct and standards of justice.

The so-called Westies were a loose gang of Irish criminals that operated on the west side of New York City in the area known as Hell’s Kitchen. They ran gambling, loan-sharking, bookmaking, and drug-dealing operations since the 1960s in the chunk of Manhattan north of 34th Street and south of 59th Street. Chipping away at their strength in the late ’80s were the dual forces of gentrification and prosecution, which forced law-abiding citizens of the area into cheaper boroughs and the criminally-minded into jail or out of town. Released the same year as State of Grace was T.J. English’s excellent book The Westies, a thorough study of the neighborhood from the turn of the century that follows both the main criminal players of the gang and their law-enforcement counterparts with world-weary objectivity and humor.

Some of English’s The Westies makes its way into State of Grace, albeit in a heavy fictionalized form. Sean Penn stars as Terry Noonan, a neighborhood kid who ditched Hell’s Kitchen as soon as he was of age and is now returning to claim his spot in the fray. His best friend Jackie is a dying breed, an enthusiastic product of the neighborhood that thrives in his criminal element and sneers at the encroaching gentrification: “Yuppies gotta be thicker than the rats and the roaches!” Jackie is played by Gary Oldman, who infuses his character with unpredictable electricity and steals every scene.

Terry tries to pick up where he left off with his old flame Kate (Robin Wright), who like Terry ditched the neighborhood and is working a straight job uptown. He begins working for Jackie’s older brother Frankie (Ed Harris), who’s the new boss of Hell’s Kitchen but still uneasy in his role. Trying to smooth the rough edges of the crew’s reputation, Frankie has made several inroads to the Italian Mafia and is attempting to broker a partnership between the Irish and the Italians (not unlike real-life Westie leader Jimmy Coonan). A major transition happens with Penn’s character about 45 minutes into the film, and we learn that Terry’s motives for returning to his old neighborhood aren’t as clear-cut as they first appeared.

The anxiety of a world in flux is palpable in every scene, with each character’s own internal conflicts bouncing off the tension felt by a neighborhood’s traditions being threatened by the global economy. “They don’t even want to call it Hell’s Kitchen no more!” cries Jackie. Oldman’s character is the only one in the film who is completely sure of himself and what his role is in life, and is also the character who’s most comfortable with casual violence, arson, and murder. When things go sideways with Frankie’s deal with the Italians, everyone’s true motivations come to light and violence ensues.

The gang tears each other apart just in time for the Giuliani era to be ushered in, paving the neighborhood’s old traditions and sins under new condo blocks and bistros that are the landscape of 21st century Hell’s Kitchen. Though the film describes a very specific time in New York’s history, there are no trappings of any period that causes the movie to appear dated or stale. Adding to the timelessness is an understated score by Ennio Morricone, and brown tones layered by cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth that ground the movie in sedate reality. State of Grace serves as a wake for an era of New York long past, and for a restrained style of crime film that would die in the explosion of ultra-violence a few years later with Quentin Tarantino and Natural Born Killers.

This essay originally appeared on my site Sleeping All Day, a site celebrating crime films from the 1960s — 2000s.

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