State Of Grace: Gary Oldman’s finest screen performance?

Crime thriller State Of Grace is a genre classic, and Gary Oldman's performance may be the finest of his career, Ryan writes...

There’s a soulful, reflective edge to Ennio Morricone’s music, which murmurs and whispers ruefully at the start of State Of Grace. It’s a score that picks out this 1990 crime drama’s nagging sense of regret; how split-second decisions can lead to events spiralling violently out of control.

The history of the movie is itself full of a sense of what might have been. State Of Grace came out on the 19th September 1990 – just five days after a film called Goodfellas stormed US cinemas. At the same time, distributor Orion Pictures was in its final throes; even as Dances With Wolves and The Silence Of The Lambs triumphed critically and financially, the company was on the cusp of running out of cash.

As a result, State Of Grace didn’t get anything like the attention it deserved. Only later, as the movie filtered out onto home video and TV, did audiences begin to discover the film and realise just how brilliant it is. And just how startlingly magnificent Gary Oldman is as an Irish-American gangster.

Oldman plays Jackie Flannery, brother of crime boss Frank (Ed Harris). While Frank spends the greater part of his time at his plush family home in New Jersey, Jackie acts as his henchman on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen. With his greasy hair, wild eyes and cackling laugh, Jackie’s simultaneously charismatic and terrifying – the kind of character who can be drinking at a bar one minute and shooting the place up the next. Even when placed next to, say, Joe Pesci’s volatile performance as Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas, Jackie’s a fearsome creation. 

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The story clicks into gear when Terry Noonan (Sean Penn), an old friend of Jackie’s, returns to New York after a 10-year absence. Terry and Jackie immediately relax back into their old hard-drinking groove, and begin running various errands – torching yuppie buildings, shaking down local bar owners – for their boss, Frank. But little things are nibbling at the fringes of the gang; Hell’s Kitchen is gradually becoming gentrified by property developers and the middle class, while the Mafia are also beginning to encroach on Frank’s turf. The murder of luckless Irish hoodlum Stevie (John C Reilly) proves to be the flashpoint for an inferno of retribution and counter-retribution which threatens to envelope the whole gang.

It’s a piano-string taut story, written by New York playwright Dennis McIntyre. State Of Grace was the first and only big-screen feature McIntyre wrote; he died in February 1990 from stomach cancer, just six months before the film’s release.

Oldman was 32 when he signed up for State Of Grace, and it represented something of a leap of faith. Director Phil Joanou was 28 and had previously only directed the high-school comedy Three O’Clock High, which wasn’t a hit, and the 1988 U2 rockumentary, Rattle And Hum. “Gary was the first actor to commit to the film,” Joanou later told Interview Magazine, “and the only one ever even  considered for Jackie, but he took a huge risk working with me.”

“I committed to the first draft of the script,” Oldman added, “and I hadn’t seen any of Phil’s work.” 

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Signing Oldman as Jackie Flannery might have sounded like an odd move from an outsider’s perspective. Sean Penn, an actor then famed for his intense, often angry performances, probably seemed the more obvious choice to play Jackie rather than Terry, who’s the story’s brooding, introspective fulcrum.

In fact, the pairing of two spiky young actors, whose wilder tendencies were much publicised in the 80s and 90s, could have gone horribly wrong.

The first time Oldman and Penn met, Oldman reportedly danced around and sang Like A Virgin at the top of his voice. Penn and Madonna’s divorce had hit the headlines just one year earlier. Joanou probably wanted to crawl under his chair at this point, but Penn, remarkably, simply laughed.

Oldman and Penn’s intense styles of acting did, however, have some repercussions during the shoot. Joanou would have to carefully orchestrate the pair’s scenes together, giving Penn time to warm up to his best take while holding Oldman back so that he didn’t exhaust all his energy in the first run-through.

“Gary comes out of the box hot and ready to explode, and those first three takes are just gold,” Joanou recently told Filmmaker Magazine. “Sean? More of a slow burn. He would warm up, and I’d say in general that by take six, seven, eight, nine, he’s in the zone. Well, Gary’s done by that point. And I have a lot of wide shots that they’re in together, so that did cause tension.” 

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Looking back, it’s easy to see the wisdom in Joanou’s casting. Penn was great at playing young hotheads, sure, but he would likely have struggled to bring out the puppyish loyalty that underpins Jackie’s actions. We see Jackie carry out some psychotic, horrifying acts in State Of Grace, and yet he’s far from the most despicable character in the movie. That accolade goes to Ed Harris’s Frankie, who rules over his own gang brutally, and yet folds unquestioningly to the demands of the loathsome Mafia boss, Borelli (Joe Viterelli).

Jackie may be psychotic, but his actions aren’t born out of malice, but as a result of misguided devotion to his brother and his gang. In a movie full of hidden agendas, where everyone’s betraying each other, Jackie emerges – perversely – as the one character whose intentions are genuine.

Oldman’s empathy for Jackie allows us to see the chinks of humanity in this dishevelled, anarchic character. It’s something he always did in his early roles, where the people he inhabited were invariably out of control in some way – see Sid And Nancy and The Firm as two examples from his 80s career: he found the sliver of vulnerability in each character.

“He’s a very tormented soul, Jackie,” Oldman said. “The reason I like characters like him is that they are bright, they’re passionate, they have got the gift of gab. I mean, Jackie should go to drama school!”

After seeing State Of Grace, Oliver Stone cast Oldman as gunman Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK (1991). Stone told Oldman that he saw an “intensity” and “haunted quality” in Jackie Flannery – things Stone wanted to see in Oswald. Looking again at the rare moments in State Of Grace where Jackie isn’t waving a gun or beating somebody to the ground, it’s easy to see what Stone was talking about: there’s a vulnerability to Jackie that lies just beneath his outer layer of psychotic bravado. 

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Later in the 90s, Oldman often found himself cast as the villain in Hollywood movies. Yet the best roles of Oldman’s pre-Hollywood films are anything but two-dimensional, boo-hiss bad guys; they’re ordinary human beings who struggle to overcome their flaws and addictions, who’ve made mistakes that have left them trapped in their own personal hell. Jackie is, as Oldman put it, “a tormented soul.”

State Of Grace‘s purgatorial air is beautifully captured in Joanou’s balletic camerawork (expertly lensed by Jordan Cronenweth) and Morricone’s sublime music. In their hands, Hell’s Kitchen becomes a place where people are brutally slain for a few thousand dollars; a place “disappearing on a tide of yuppies and dogshit”. But it finds its clearest expression in Oldman’s turn as Jackie: crazy, tragic, violent and yet also childlike.

Frightening, beguiling – Jackie’s arguably the finest creation of Oldman’s career.

State Of Grace is out on Blu-ray now courtesy of Second Sight.