When films about American organized crime began to make stride more than thirty years ago, part of what made them resonate was the time they took to focus on the cultural identity that comprised a great deal of the story. In these films, the masculinity of Italian-Americans and who they are within the context of their culture played a huge part: The roles that are forced upon them, their environment and their intercultural interactions were all held up for display and inspection in these films. The Godfather trilogy held sway as the definitive mob films during these times, juxtaposing its characters’ ruthlessness with moral dilemmas/consequences. However, in 1990, three mafia films deviated from the standard set by Francis Ford Coppola’s trilogy and became classics that stood on their own. While only one of these films can be deemed as widely successful, the other two aren’t as celebrated but made substantial contributions to the genre. While organized crime in New York City served as each film’s backdrop, conventions on race and ethnicity began to take new turns, steering away from the popular Italian-American archetype. The first film had a protagonist who was the product of an Irish-Italian household and had criminal ties in the Italian mob. The second focused on a White drug lord who employed (and was extremely comfortable with) African Americans as part of his crew and was shunned by the local Italian gangsters for doing so. The third film (and the topic of this review) shed light on one of the unsung ethnic criminal elements in New York City: The Irish. It looked at how being of Irish descent affected their characters, from their upbringing and life choices to even how they conduct criminal business. Those three respective films from 1990 are Goodfellas, King of New York and State of Grace.
So what role does the Catholic church, family, friendship, alcohol, one’s surname, and boundaries all have in forming men of Irish descent who grew up in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan?
Title: State of Grace
Released: September 14th, 1990
Director: Phil Joanou
Starring: Sean Penn, Gary Oldman, Ed Harris, Robin Wright, John C. Reilly, and John Turturro
PLOT: The film takes place in New York City and begins with Terry Noonan (Sean Penn). Noonan was born and raised in Hell’s Kitchen and has been far away from his neighborhood for at least 10 years. He starts out by arranging a foray for himself into the criminal underworld that he left behind. After seemingly shooting two drug dealers who were planning to double-cross him, he makes his way to a local bar to reconnect with his childhood friend, Jackie Flannery (Gary Oldman). Jackie, an alcoholic Hell-raising wild child, is more than ecstatic to see Terry again after his 10-year absence. Shortly after his return, he rekindles his love with Jackie’s younger sister, Kate (Robin Wright) and seeks to join the ranks of their older brother’s criminal organization. Frankie Flannery (played by Ed Harris) is very close from negotiating a profitable business alliance between his group and the local, more powerful Italian mob led by Joe Borelli. He wants to look and act respectable in the eyes of Borelli, but his efforts are thwarted at every turn due to his own short-temperament and his group’s boorish predilections as street hoodlums.
As Noonan gains Frankie’s trust, he reveals to Kate that he’s an undercover police officer for the city of Boston. He was recruited by the New York Police Department as a mole to infiltrate the Flannery’s organization and take them down from within. The scene around the beginning of the film in which he shot two drug dealers (including John Turturro, who serves as his NYPD contact) was staged to give him street credibility. Noonan initially believed that it’d be an easy assignment so long as he’s not directly involved with any of his old acquaintances. However, he becomes increasingly torn by his duties as a cop and his loyalty to the people he grew up around. Jackie’s violent behavior against Borelli’s mob doesn’t help matters either and Frankie’s subterfuge in his own organization makes things worse. Frankie’s proven himself willing to eliminate threats to his deal as soon as they appear. He kills one of his men, Stevie Maguire (John C. Reilly), for not paying off his debt to one of Borelli’s men, dumps him in the Hudson river and then blames his death on the Italians. While Stevie’s death launches Jackie into a violent manic-depression, Frankie remains icy calm and stresses the need for his men to show maturity. But Terry grows even more paranoid that he’ll be discovered by Frankie and subsequently killed, so he turns to alcohol with almost the same frequency as Jackie. It’s not long before more people on both sides of the criminal underworld get killed, Terry spitefully reveals his identity to Frankie and a strikingly violent showdown occurs in an Irish bar on St. Patrick’s Day during NYC’s St. Paddy’s Day parade, no less.
From l to r: Ed Harris, Robin Wright, R.D. Call and Sean Penn
MY TAKE: I view State of Grace as an underrated classic in the mafia genre. It doesn’t get as much praise as it deserves because it was released around the same time as Goodfellas and got lost in its wake. While it has plenty of on-screen killings and a burning building thrown in for good measure, the film’s a drama at heart. To bring that vision to life, Phil Joanou chose actors who are capable of articulating inner and outer conflict. Sean Penn does his best in expressing his character’s dichotomy and the accompanying inner turmoil, especially when it’s non-verbal. It’s all over his face when he’s around the people from his character’s old life. He’s torn between his duty and the ties that bind. When he admits to Kate that he’s a cop, albeit drunkenly, he refers to himself as a Judas. He knows that being a police officer goes against everything that’s been ingrained in him since he was a child in Hell’s Kitchen. By the end, he does what he has to do. Though his return to Hell’s Kitchen is a welcome one, it’s reminiscent of the themes in Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again. Things have changed to the point where he correctly feels out of place. His old girlfriend, Kate, moved uptown to get away from her brothers and can’t decide whether she’s still in love with Terry or disgusted with what he’s become. She loves her older brothers, but openly rejects their lifestyle. Incidentally, this is Penn’s first film with Robin Wright before they started seeing each other IRL and eventually married. Ed Harris’ Frankie is desperately trying to escape his identity as well, but he does so within the confines of the criminal underworld. His group is based on the real-life Irish street gang, the Westies, and he took over in Terry’s absence. He now wears nice suits, is married with two children, and escaped across the river to the suburbs of New Jersey to better himself. The fact that he lives in New Jersey serves to slightly touch upon the known animosity that NYC has towards the Garden State and the latter’s inferiority complex towards the former. But no matter how much he believes himself to be better than his upbringing, he can’t escape it. He attempts to act with class and wants his men to do so as well, but they can’t even stop each other from bashing each others’ skulls during an attempt to shake down a local bartender by intimidating him into buying worthless liquor. In front of Borelli, his attempt at having manners falls short when he tries to clean a minor mess at a restaurant table and only creates more of a mess. Harris expertly conveys a non-verbal look of shame and embarrassment when Borelli rather patronizingly remarks, “You kids from the west side“. Frankie wants to change, but he’s an Irish thug at heart who only mimics the ability to have good manners. He wants to emulate the Italians, but because of his ethnicity, they know that he’ll never be one of them.
One of the biggest reasons for this film’s praise is Gary Oldman’s performance. As Jackie Flannery, he mimics West Manhattan dialect and accent to the point where he could pass as a native. His character is the most unpredictable and the most interesting. He holds on to a sense of nostalgia about his neighborhood that conflicts with the present reality. His explosiveness and volatile outbursts are a direct result of that clash. He wants the Irish of Hell’s Kitchen to remain street thugs and somewhat resents Frankie for wanting to emulate the Italians whom he considers his people’s enemy. Whereas his older brother wants Irish criminals to evolve, Jackie is more than content with being part of a resilient disorganized crime ring. His family’s name already has him marked. One character remarks to Terry about how the Flannerys are snakes who can’t be trusted. Of all of the characters, Oldman’s Jackie is the only one who doesn’t even pretend to change, much less desire it.
In comparison to other films that depict the Irish-American mob, State of Grace remains a straight drama through-and-through that doesn’t go over-the-top (though some labeled Oldman’s performance as such). 2005’s A History of Violence was more of a psychological thriller with the Philadelphia Irish Mafia as major element in the backstories of several of its characters. Also, the film depicted the Irish mafia as suit-wearing gangsters living in upscale neighborhoods, everything that Frankie Flannery dreamed of becoming. Martin Scorsese’s The Departed from 2006 depicted Boston’s Irish mob mainly through the character of Frank Costello. Though he sported an Italian surname, Costello identified strongly with his Irish heritage. But he was portrayed as an evil, untrustworthy schemer who paid lip-service to his heritage while wantonly killing anyone and overindulging on his every vice along the way. But the one thing each film has in common is that they are studies in character with Irish-American backgrounds.
For people that enjoy urban mob dramas with actors who can act, State of Grace is for you. If you like watching people getting popped in style sprinkled with one-liners, again this film is for you.
Sy L. Shackleford is a jack-of-all-trades columnist for Action A Go Go. A University of Connecticut graduate with a degree in both psychology and communication sciences, he is a walking encyclopedic repository for all things Marvel Comics, movies, hip-hop, et. al. You can follow him on Twitter @shack_house83.
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