Though by no means a film buff, I love writing reviews. When the chance to review a DVD release of Last Exit to Brooklyn arose, I took it. Like the novel it is based on, it is harrowing, and worth it because it is.
Roger Ebert said in his 1990 review: “The movie takes place in one of the gloomiest and most depressing urban settings I’ve seen in a movie. These streets aren’t mean, they’re unforgiving. Vast blank warehouse walls loom over the barren pavements, and vacant lots are filled with abandoned cars where mockeries of love take place…. Most people hate movies like this. I think perhaps it is because no attempt is being made to force the characters and stories into comforting endings.”
Last Exit To Brooklyn DVD (18)
Dir: Uli Edel, 1989, USA/UK/Germany, 102 mins
Cast: Stephen Lang, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Peter Dobson, Burt Young
Last Exit To Brooklyn is set during the Korean War, in the early 1950s. The first characters you see are a trio of soldiers, cock-of-the-walking their way back to barracks after a night out. For a few, deceptive seconds this might be a war film, in the conventional sense. Then the real soldiers, fighting the real war, bowl on screen: a gang of roughneck wops, spoiling for action. A brief, brutal, beautifully choreographed beating later you’re in their world, to stay.
Based on the novel by Hubert Selby (author of Requiem For A Dream), the film is a raw, artful, unsparing look at raggle taggle Brooklyn life. The endless parade of soldiers who straggle through the film getting mugged, propositioned, beaten up, or otherwise damaged in their exchanges on this lawless patch are stand-ins for the audience – sucked into a world that is short on narrative arc and long on impulse, where the only constant is violence. At the centre of this universe of quicksand is Tralala (Leigh), a mouthy hooker with a finely tuned survival instinct, and her occasional partners in crime, Vinnie (Dobson) and Sal (Stephen Baldwin). Their buddy, Harry (Lang), is a shop steward, and head of the strike office, making free with his union expense account as the community struggles through a long strike against the bosses of the local metalworks.
Though a stunningly filmed late-night clash between police and strikers provides the visual epicentre of the film, social issues never eclipse the individual. Rather, the big picture stuff (war, labour disputes, family relationships) is backdrop to the intensely felt experiences of the characters. In sharp contrast to films that look back at the ‘50s through a spyglass of modern mores, Last Exit is perfectly self-absorbed. When shop boss Harry falls hard for a fey, selfish little queen called Regina (Bernard Zette) it would be easy for the film to make a statement about contemporary sexuality, or life in the closet. But it doesn’t, because the point is not what we think of Harry, but how he feels. Instead of glib commentary, there is real pathos. A theme that is repeated in the subplot of transvestite Georgette (Alexis Arquette) and her unrequited love for good-looking thug Vinnie (ringleader of the tormenters in the opening scene). Any kind of vulnerability can be fatal in Last Exit’s testosterone-fuelled landscape, especially for dainty queens, which makes Georgette’s flirtation watch-through-fingers stuff.
Frankly, it’s a miserable film. Yet so lovingly shot and acted you can’t help being drawn in. These are characters so small, sharp, closed and ugly they wouldn’t ever get an airing elsewhere, but the strong cast (including an excellent young Sam Rockwell) render them painfully alive. Leigh, in particular, pulls off an extraordinarily difficult role with power and panache. They elicit compassion when they shouldn’t and they provoke empathy at the unlikeliest moments. And while they’re trapped, you can leave, which gives this film its lingering, bittersweet edge.