Overlooked & Underseen: State of Grace (1990)
For a few years in the late 1980s, director Phil Joanou was what we used to like to call “hot shit”. He went to USC film school, was taken under the wing of Steven Spielberg, and then got to direct episodes of Amazing Stories. U2, at that time one of the biggest bands on the planet, asked Joanou to direct some of their music videos. Joanou’s first feature film he directed was teen comedy Three O’Clock High (1987). That same year, U2 asked Joanou to direct their “rockumentary” Rattle and Hum which would coincide with the release of their album of the same name. I recently rewatched Rattle and Hum because I was considering writing about it for this column. Ultimately, I decided not to, but let me say that while the band comes off as super pretentious, the live concert footage from various stadiums around the US is absolutely gorgeous. If there’s a reason to watch that movie, it’s the live stuff. Rattle and Hum, the movie, didn’t do very well at the box office, but that didn’t matter because in 1990 Joanou was given the helm of the movie we’re discussing here, State of Grace.
Sean Penn, Gary Oldman, and Ed Harris, that’s quite the dream cast back in 1990. Just for kicks, they threw in John Turturro, Robin Wright, John C. Reilly and Burgess fucking Meredith. With a score by Ennio Morricone, I mean, come on. State of Grace quickly got lost in the very big shadow of Scorsese’s Goodfellas, both films being released the same week(!) and there it pretty much remains, long forgotten by most people. That’s a shame, really, because it doesn’t deserve that fate and I’m here to try and turn that around.
Set in Hell’s Kitchen, the movie follows Terry Noonan (Penn) as he come back home after being away for many years. He looks up his old best pal from the neighborhood, Jackie Flannery (Oldman). Jackie works for his older brother Frank (Harris), who is the leader of an Irish crime organization. The three reunite and Terry soon becomes involved in helping Jackie carry out jobs for Frank. Terry also reunites with Jackie’s sister, Kathleen (Wright). They were a couple before Terry left town and they soon find themselves in each other’s arms. Frank isn’t happy with his piece of the pie that is Hell’s Kitchen, he wants more, so he gets involved with an Italian mob boss Borelli (Joe Viterelli). Borelli asks Frank to do a job that seems beyond the pale, but Frank wants to please Borelli so he goes through with it, causing the shit to hit the fan for all involved.
State of Grace is a straight up neo-noir and Joanou works that for everything it’s worth. I was recently discussing this movie with a friend and I said I’d love to see this get the black and white treatment. A lot of the credit for the look of the film has to go to cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (Blade Runner). There are some really gorgeous shots here. It ticks all the boxes as a neo-noir, including light and shadows, themes involving good vs bad/right vs wrong, and revenge. The Morricone score is terrific and lends itself well to the film. And yes, there are some U2 songs that play on jukeboxes but don’t let that take you out of it.
Penn, Oldman, and Harris are really at the top of their game. Oldman’s Jackie is tremendous. He does what it takes to protect his family, both by blood and by bond. It’s really a joy to watch him work here. Harris is a stone-cold motherfucker. His Frank is the opposite of Jackie, he doesn’t live by the code of loyalty to family like his brother does. Jackie wears his heart on his sleeve whereas we don’t know if Frank even has a heart. Penn seems to get overshadowed by the other two but, really, he’s got the hardest task of the three. He’s walking a tightrope, dealing with so many different emotions. He’s being pulled into different directions and he’s just struggling to stay the course. This is one of my favorite Penn roles.
Robin Wright holds her own here against those three formidable men. Kathleen is in her own fight dealing with divided loyalties, what her family means to her, and how Terry fits into it all. Special shout out for Burgess Meredith who is only on screen for a short time but he still gives everything he’s got.
Sadly, State of Grace doesn’t seem to be available for streaming anywhere but it is available on Blu-ray so, please, seek this one out. Also, while you’re at it, why not go for a Joanou double feature and check out Rattle and Hum, too.