Monday, April 15, 2013

Straying From The Party Line #3: The Lack of Unique Imagery in Donnie Brasco

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Underrated Movies on this blog, but I’ve never really solved the question of why movies become underrated.  Donnie Brasco is one of the all-time great mob movies, but it didn’t earn as much box office as it deserved, didn’t get any Oscar love (Pacino is so much better here than in the other ‘90s movies he was nominated for) and it’s only dimly remembered today.

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.


j.s. said...

I think you're right in pegging the failure of this film to connect on director Mike Newell, but perhaps too generous about the reason(s). For me it's more about Newell's total absence of street cred when it comes to the authenticity of the world of the film. I'm not saying that you have to be Italian American like Scorsese or Coppola or David Chase to tell a mob story but at the very least you ought to have known a few actual tough guys and to have lived in a dirty and dangerous city like New York, as have directors as different as Sidney Lumet, William Friedkin and Spike Lee.

I've never made it through this film and you're the first recommendation in a long time to make me feel like reconsidering. To be honest, what put me off the film the first time might seem laughably superficial.

You see, it's the hats. The two leads and just about everyone else sport ridiculous looking headwear. It may be period appropriate. It may even be culturally and subculturally accurate. But there's something about the particular look and fit of those specific hats that screams amateur hour to me and immediately and completely takes me out of the story.

I feel the same way about the lackluster remake of 3:10 TO YUMA, which, among its many other sins, seems to go out of its way to pick the worst hat for each character.

Over the weekend I had a look at the new Criterion edition of BADLANDS and, in the special features, Martin Sheen discusses how seriously Terrence Malick had considered having Kit wear a hat for most of the film. After they sampled dozens of choices, Malick concluded that all of them made Sheen look both goofier and dumber than the character was.

I remember hearing how Jimmy Stewart refused to do a Western unless he could choose his own hat. He famously wore the same one in film after film and got into a fight with John Ford about it on their first collaboration. Stewart won. Though he hardly wore a hat at all in their next film together, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALENCE. And it was the right decision in each case.

That to me is the essence of what a director does: He picks the right hat, he vetoes the wrong one, or he insists on no hat at all.

And watching the first 30-40 minutes of DONNIE BRASCO, I was struck by the sense that Newell had delegated those decisions to his department heads and maybe to the actors themselves.

Matt Bird said...

Ha! Funny you should mention that-- On the commentary, Newell says that Pacino showed up on set with a hat he had picked out, and Newell hated it, partially because Michael Corleone also wore a hat and he didn't want anybody linking the characters, but Pacino insisted and Newell says that he reminded himself, "Pick your battles." I actually liked the hats, myself.

You should watch the movie!

Devin McKay said...

Goodfellas is one of my favorite films of all time so when Donnie Brasco came along I was really excited. I have seen it now around 20 times, including once more after reading this post, and I could never figure out why this film didn't hit me as hard as Goodfellas. It has all the makings of a really great movie, but for some reason I always feel a little "meh" about it. This is such a great post because it taps into that spark behind the eyes of a film that makes it more than just engaging. It makes it alive. There really are no trailer moments in this movie. Nothing that completely floors me when I see it. And I know these guys are gangsters making tons of money but everyone seems to be really desperate and miserable. Goodfellas showed you what was fun about organized crime. It gave you a character to, if not root for, at least engage with. The voice over was really key to connecting to Henry Hill in that movie. Goodfellas was also more episodic, which led to some story lines being more light hearted. Wish-fulfillment stuff. Then the murder and mayhem would start up and you would get a reality check. I really didn't know why this was so important to Donnie. It would have been great if there was a moment when Donnie knew he was "in" and then simultaneously realized that while he just scored a major goal for his career/obsession, he just doomed his wife and kids. The author/educator Dwight Swain has this method of writing where every time you write a scene it is immediately followed by a reaction to that scene so you know what the impact this is going to have on the characters. It just feels like stuff just happens in Donnie Brasco. The characters allude to getting whacked but it's never really shown what impact that will have on their families. This is something Goodfellas also did really well. You get to see the hell people go through with a mob guy in the family. Great article!

Harvey Jerkwater said...

I'm curious -- do you think it would be useful to pick a bad (or at least sub-par) movie and apply the checklist to it? Not necessarily a crap-fest like "Transformers 3: Michael Bay Wants a Bigger House," since there's not much point to a movie that doesn't check off a single box on the list, but a plain ol' bad one? Or pick a mediocre movie and see where it goes off the rails? Misfires can be educational.

Matt Bird said...

That would be fun, but before we get to that, we'll look at some great movies that defy the checklist a little more.