One of the reasons why is hinted at in the comments: After Lefty is summoned to be killed, thanks to Donnie’s betrayal, we cut to a shot of Donnie shooting holes in a target, implying that Donnie’s the one responsible for his death. It’s a little too neat, but still works in a visceral way.
Tellingly, director Mike Newell, in his commentary, says that they discovered this juxtaposition in the editing room, and they only had that shooting range footage because they shot it for the trailer. The producers had realized after seeing the dailies that they didn’t have the footage they needed to cut a trailer that told the story visually: The movie talked a lot about how Donnie was an FBI agent, but we there were no visuals that showed it. This brings us to:
- Deviations: No image we haven’t seen before, no framing sequence, no special skills are set up beforehand.
- The Potential Problem: The dialogue in this movie is some of the best ever written and great performances from Depp and Pacino get the most out of it. Newell (best known for Four Weddings and a Funeral) seemed like he would be a terrible fit for the material, but he actually crafts a fantastically taut, funny, nail-biting drama-thriller. But in retrospect, these three deviations set up a larger problem, and help explain why this movie failed to connect as well as some other mob movies.
- Does the Movie Get Away With It? No. For me, this checklist has unexpectedly revealed a crucial flaw in this movie that I never would have detected without it: the conflict is not visualized enough. If we had seen Joe in his role as a G-man, either in flashbacks to his training, flashforwards to the aftermath, or some other form of visualization, then the movie would have had more of a lasting impact. Even when pulling a still yesterday to illustrate the boat scene, I couldn’t really find one that symbolized the conflict. Newell, who came from a theater background, focused on tone, performance, and verisimilitude, all of which are fantastic, but a more symbolic visual impact would gone a long way to making a more indelible mark on the public consciousness.