Staten Island, New York [2009]

View of Manhattan from Staten Island

First time director James DeMonaco’s quirky yet satisfying crime film is a sleeper hit. I hadn’t heard a thing about this one, and luckily I waited ’till after watching it to look at Rotten Tomatoes, where it enjoys an abysmal average of 22% from only nine reviews. It goes to show you can’t trust the critics (except me, of course). You gotta watch what you like, and I really liked Staten Island, New York. My friend and co-author Jesse and I have discovered a complicated but brilliant method of picking apart the copious films we view. It goes something like this: Please, I want to enjoy your movie, so don’t fuck it up.

Vincent D'Onofrio as Parmie

Staten Island starts off with a corny homage to Manhattan’s “forgotten stepchild” (as the film bills DeMonaco’s birthplace) that had me worried from the beginning. Luckily we soon meet Vincent D’Onofrio’s comically charming “Parmie”–with a couple goons, torturing a bound and gagged man in a garage while munching on Macadamia nuts. Parmie’s a mother’s boy mobster with aspirations of fame and D’Onofrio displays comic sense and a likability on screen in the role. In the film’s second scene we see Parmie in a pool on camera attempting to break the Guinness record for holding one’s breath under water. The skill ends up saving Parmie’s life later in a humorous, if too-easy, way. We see D’Onofrio, Hawke and Cassell on screen together in an early scene at a bakery that is to repeat a handful of times throughout the film (oh no, you’re thinking Run, Lola, Run) and on which the film hinges. Although DeMonaco’s fractured narrative and irreverent, even sometimes comedic brand of crime has been compared to Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, this  somehow reminded me of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon.

Ethan Hawke as Sully

Ethan Hawke is great, (as usual) as Sully, an “introspective” (as the film bills him) septic tank cleaner. In one scene he gazes longingly across the bay at Wall Street from inside his truck. In another he  zones out while extracting sewage through a customer’s lawn just as fecal matter suddenly escapes from a break in the pipeline and sprays him in the face. After each stinky day he showers two or three times, scrubbing vigorously at his fingernails with a hard bristle brush, only to have his wife run a smell check and kindly plead him to take “just one more” shower. Sully becomes interested in a scientific process known as embryonic gene modification when he visits a fertility clinic with his wife (Julianne Nicholson) and sees a video touting the breakthrough science that supposedly makes children “smarter and healthier.” Sully hopes that with greater smarts than his own his child might be able to achieve something grander than a career in waste management. The procedure is prohibitively expensive, however, and Sully eventually devises a scheme to raise the money–his first foray into crime.

Seymour Cassell as Jasper Sabiano

The most delightful performance, and the most poignant of the three story lines, perhaps, is that of Seymour Cassell’s Jasper, a deaf and mute butcher. Jasper is an elderly bachelor who delights in watching old subtitled comedies on his black and white TV and following horse racing–his greatest passion. One beautiful and heartbreaking scene shows Jasper holding his ticket at the betting ring, standing and grinning as he watches his horse on the TVs. The grin turns to a frown and he drops his ticket and turns to walk away. Jasper has been betting on horses every day for twenty years with the hope of winning big. Both Sully and Parmie happen to be Jasper’s customers.

Buttons for bodies

The three characters’ storylines interweave on a canvas of greed and violence, and the film does an excellent job of juxtaposing lighthearted, sometimes comical scenes with dark and somber subject matter. SI,NY manages to be a character study, a human drama and a crime film all at the same time. Although the film isn’t flawless–the soundtrack was occasionally leading (my biggest pet peave), the character description cut scenes were probably unnecessary, and sometimes the film is logistically flawed or careless (how did D’Onofrio get his big body, never mind that tree house, way up in that tree by himself?). I found these things forgivable, though, as the mood of the film didn’t necessarily dictate realism and efficiency. This isn’t a muted, sparse crime film a la Gomorrah or a mercilessly dark one like Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, another awesome film in which Ethan Hawke plays a similarly frazzled crime newbie. SI,NY is something unique, and I found it riveting and affirming. Note that Luc Besson, a veteran of the genre and director of La Femme Nikita (perhaps my favorite mainstream crime film of all time), is listed as first producer. This film’s got interest, talent and a creative, well-executed storyline. Fuck what Rotten Tomatoes says–The Town is listed at 94%, for crying out loud. Are you serious? Somebody shoot me, please.

Logan’s Rating: 7.5/10

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