The Revival House: State of Grace (1990)

The Revival House: Shining a light on underrated crime films. The coulda beens and shoulda beens you ought to know about.

Tonight’s Screening: State of Grace (1990)

There is so much to love about State of Grace, and almost all those things are what made it a flop at the box office. It didn’t even crack the 2 million mark. Granted those were 1990 dollars, but even back then under 2 mil put it at #156 for the year. Right in the neighborhood of flop city.

The trials and travails of the Irish mob in New York is rich, untapped territory and State of Grace takes us deep inside a crime organization undergoing growing pains and struggling to prove itself with the big dogs on the street—the Italians. The first and only produced screenplay by Dennis McIntyre (who I will assume is Irish) is a twisty and tense thriller that plays out slowly and draws you in like quicksand.

Sean Penn plays Terry Noonan, back in his old neighborhood after years away. Where? We don’t know and he’s not saying. There’s tension there. His childhood pals the Flannery brothers are big shots in the Irish Mob now and his ex-girlfriend happens to be the Flannerys’ younger sister, Kathleen—played by Penn’s real-life wife (now ex) Robin Wright. 

Terry feels himself being drawn back in to a life he worked hard to escape. To give away too much of the plot is to spoil the great riches that lie in letting the story play out. 

The film is deliberate in pace, but not slow. Think classic slow-burn crime films like The French Connection or Three Days of the Condor. At the start of the 90s though, Hollywood was already in full Die Hard mode. Big booms, big laughs, and bad guys with big accents. 

Director Phil Joanou has a great knack for action and a willingness that barely exists anymore to let scenes play out and let actors act. The cinematography is by Jordan Cronenweth of Blade Runner fame and he carves deep shadows in the Hell’s Kitchen locations where every manhole cover spews steam and every sidewalk is glistening wet. 

Why so glum?
Penn gets to chew the scenery alongside Ed Harris as the elder Flannery, Frankie. Gary Oldman is the younger loose cannon, Jackie. Even in the pantheon of outré Gary Oldman characters, Jackie is a live wire with stringy hair and a fuse about the length of a candle wick. Want to know what a nut Jackie is? He keeps a pair of frozen severed hands in a freezer in case he needs to plant untraceable prints on a gun. Genius. Warped, psychopathic genius.

That is the world of State of Grace. It is a movie of small details that add up to a marvelously lived-in feel. Great location shooting, impeccable casting of the character actors who talk with a greasy downtown patter, and an ever-shifting ground of loyalty add up to one of the great underrated crime movies of the 90s or any decade. 

The film is a showcase for the actors, a textbook on how to film suspense and action sequences (the big shootout in a bar during St. Patrick’s Day is a marvel of slow motion mayhem to rival John Woo), and sadly, a film almost nobody knows about.

When I saw it in college I think I was one of about five people the theater. Such a shame. 

The moment that struck me then is what really made State of Grace lodge in my memory as a favorite. Again, I can’t give anything away, but there is a moment about halfway through when everything changes. It’s one of those head-spinning, “Holy crap, no way!” moments that sinks the hooks in deeper and lets you know the film is in complete control.

It is a special film that can fool you without making you feel tricked, and draw you in slowly then rocket you along to an ending where you feel deeply for every character. You want nearly everyone to live and also to die. Throw in a little John Turturro and a gruff Burgess Meredith and you’ve got cinema gold. And yes, the soundtrack features lots of U2, Sinead O’Connor and The Pogues.

Goodfellas poster
Damn you, Goodfellas!
State of Grace has all the big crime drama themes on display: loyalty, brotherhood, trust, betrayal. This is no feel good, post-Tarantino talk fest. It is not self-conscious. It is quiet and stately. It ends somewhere between ambiguous and a real downer. Most of all it is freaking good

Phil Joanou has had a frustrating career for those of us who think the few films he has made are quite good. Another movie that could end up on a later Revival House feature is Heaven’s Prisoners which has flaws, no doubt. Final Analysis has even more flaws but State of Grace shows the potential for what could have been.

But 1990 was the year of Goodfellas. The flash and sheer volume of that film drowned out the more subtle and deeper felt pleasures of State of Grace. It has more in common with the action movies coming out of Hong Kong in the late 80s than the films coming out of Hollywood. I’ll start many an argument by saying I feel State of Grace is a much more re-watchable film than Goodfellas. Goodfellas can get tiring, even the first time. Not only because of the running time, but all that cinematic pyrotechnics on display is exhausting to watch. State of Grace goes down smooth like a pint of Guinness with a shot of Bushmills as chaser.

This little-seen gem is well worth rediscovery. So go and seek it out and report back. And if you are among the fans of this film already (I know there are more out there) it’s time we start talking about it and making people realize just what they’re missing.

Eric Beetner is an ex-musician, one time film director, and a working television editor and producer, as well as author (with JB Kohl) of the novels One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, two daughters, and one really great dog. His upcoming novella Dig Two Graves will be out later this summer, along with short stories in the anthologies Pulp Ink, D*cked, and Grimm Tales.

Read all of Eric Beetner’s Criminal Element posts.


  1. Vince

    A good look at an underseen film. STATE OF GRACE’s writing history is interesting. It’s playwright Dennis McIntyre’s only produced script; he died of cancer before the film was released. Playwright David Rabe contributed mightily to the final script, but lost a WGA arbitration. He is thanked for his contribution in the credits, though, and Orion took the unusual step of publicizing his role during the film’s release.

  2. Gordon Harries

    This was apparently an influence on Jason Aaron and R.M Guera’s award garlanded ‘Scalped’ series and I bought a budget edition on the back of that. I don’t know if it’s a R2 issue or not, but the film was pan and scanned so badly as to render it unwatchable.

    Pity, as there were some good performances going on.

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