- Vancouver, British Columbia - The film opens on the marching band of a St. Patrick’s Day parade. Bagpipers and drummers play soundlessly while the film’s score sweeps through sadly. The camera is zoomed in to the point where the action is almost unrecognizable, and blurred ever so slightly. Each band member passing on screen is playing their role, no longer acting autonomously, but part of an orchestrated event. Surrounded by their peers, the crushing weight of expectation keeps each member in line until the parade is finally over. Only then do these men go back to their lives, hobbies, jobs and families. But for now they march on.
After a ten year absence, Terry Noonan (Sean Penn) returns home to his native New York. Word of a drug deal gone wrong that Noonan was a part of, resulting in a couple deaths, spread through the criminal underworld as Noonan meets up with his old friends in the Irish gang. Noonan is reinitiated into the gang by his best friend Jackie Flannery (Gary Oldman), and learns it is now run by Jackie’s older brother Frankie (Ed Harris). While Noonan and Kathleen Flannery (Robin Wright) begin to rekindle their old romance, Noonan breaks the news to her that he is actually an undercover cop on assignment to bring his old friends to justice. Things are further complicated when Noonan learns Frankie is responsible for a murder of one of the gang members, and another childhood friend.
Sean Penn Month: Any misgivings I had about Penn’s odd facial expressions and faux machismo from Casualties Of War are completely dissolved. In the span of a couple years, Penn has proven he is able to completely immerse himself in a role. Penn is amazingly convincing here, tackling his inner demons and trying to balance his loyalties, it makes what might be a run-of-the-mill crime drama into an extremely compelling piece. I’m really not sure how he’s able to wear his emotions on his sleeve while simultaneously being able to hide his true nature, but the conflict is central to the film and Penn carries it. There’s a shocking undercurrent of violence in his actions, but they are the result of him fighting his nature – even if we’re not sure what his nature truly is. Dude is also really cut.
I also have to mention the always fantastic Gary Oldman. He reminded me a lot of Heath Ledger’s Joker, but maybe it’s more fair to say that Ledger’s Joker seems to be wholly inspired by Oldman here (I’m totally serious). He’s a manic alcoholic who loves violence but is bound by a small moral code focused on his gang. He’s unpredictable, but strangely sympathetic, like he’s not accountable for his actions. Actually I think of Lady Caroline Lamb’s description of Lord Byron, in that Jackie is “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”
In direct contrast is Ed Harris as the dangerous but controlled gang leader Frankie. To be honest though, this is nothing new from Harris. He plays these roles really well and he’s compelling to watch, but again it’s nothing new. I liked him and he had to make some tough choices that will make you cringe.
So as I’m watching the film, a familiar ugly mug comes up on screen. Hold on…John C. Reilly again?? And he’s still skinny! This time, he’s very well-suited for his role here as Stevie, the tragic gang member with a heart of gold. I actually really liked him and it was really sad to see his throat get slit by his childhood friend.
For those trivia hounds out there, when Noonan walks into the bar early in the movie, you may hear U2’s “Angel of Harlem” playing over the jukebox. Director Phil Joanou had just finished directing U2’s film Rattle and Hum before this film, so I guess he wanted to acknowledge that…or something. I don’t know, not even U2 really like Rattle and Hum, as the film is a little pretentious but there you go.
I also wanted to quickly mention the sex scene between Kathleen and Noonan. As her shirt comes off, I couldn’t help but think of that line from The Princess Bride that Wesley says to Buttercup before she stabs herself through the heart: “There’s a shortage of perfect breasts in the world. It would be a shame to damage yours.” I giggled a little bit.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the script was written in part by David Rabe (uncredited), also from Casualties of War. So I think I kind of like the chemistry of Penn, Reilly, and Rabe.
Again, the film’s not groundbreaking, but between Oldman and Penn’s performances, State of Grace is elevated from an okay movie to a pretty good movie.
Rating: 3.5/5 Sour Grapes