Pacino and Depp deliver low-key, carefully controlled, sensitive performances: how often do you get to write that?
Director: Mike Newell
Cast: Al Pacino (Benjamin "Lefty" Ruggiero), Johnny Depp (Joseph Pistone/Donnie Brasco), Michael Madsen (Dominick "Sonny Black" Napolitano), Bruno Kirby (Nicky Santora), Anne Heche (Maggie Pistone), James Russo ("Paulie" Cersani), Željko Ivanek (Tim Curley), Gerry Becker (Dean Blandford), Robert Miano (Al "Sonny Red" Indelicato), Tim Blake Nelson, Paul Giamatti (FBI Technicians)
The Mafia film genre is a crowded market, so it’s a brave film maker who enters it with something a little different. But we get that with Donnie Brasco, which focuses on the bottom rungs of the Mafia ladder, suggesting that being a low-ranking member of “this thing of ours” is in many ways quite similar to being a corporate drone in the big city, only with more killing.
Joseph Pistone aka Donnie Brasco (Johnny Depp) is an undercover FBI agent, infiltrating the New York Mafia. He wins the trust of “Lefty” Ruggiero (Al Pacino), a Mafia hitman. Drawn deeper into the Mafia world, the pressure builds on Pistone/Brasco, who slowly becomes more and more indistinguishable from the criminals he spends his time with – and feels guilty about the deadly fate Lefty will meet if the Mafia discover he inadvertently introduced a rat into the family.
Newell’s film (from Paul Attanasio’s excellent script) is a dry deconstruction of the gangster life, bringing it closer to the grind of the 9-5. The criminals put in long hours to earn the income they need to push up to those above them. Class distinctions abound – in one scene, Sonny Black (a good performance of ambition and resentment from Michael Madsen) forces a smile onto his face while mob bosses laugh openly at his dress sense. Lefty whines like a mule about everything from his lack of recognition to how put-upon he is (never has a mantra about 26 hits over a lifetime sounded more like complaints about constant filing requests). He could easily be mistaken half the time for a harrassed office junior who never made the grade. When violence comes, it’s sudden, graphic, confused and brutal – a hit in a basement goes far from smoothly with one victim struggling for his life while another screams in pain.
On the other hand, the gangsters are also suggested to be maladjusted teens who never grew up. The more time Donnie spends with them, the less and less capable he becomes of relating to (or even communicating with) his wife and family. The gangsters have a routine lack of empathy for each other and treat the rules of “our thing” like a boys’ clubhouse. Many of their actions have an ill-thought-out juvenility to them: Sonny at one point steals a lion for Lefty as a gift – in a bizarre scene immediately afterwards, Lefty and Donnie feed it hamburgers through the window while it sits in the back seat of Donnie’s car. On a work-trip in Florida, the gangsters behave like kids – mucking around in the pool, delightedly going down waterflumes, burying Lefty in the sand on the beach while he sleeps. Even Lefty is overcome like a star-struck teen when meeting a famed Florida boss.
It’s not surprising that Donnie and Lefty, both outsiders in a way, are drawn together as kindred spirits in this strange, unbalanced world. Donnie obviously is an FBI agent, but Lefty is a world-weary old-timer, with a sense of honour who seems (apart from his ease with killing and violence) to be the most “normal” of the gangsters. The film is a careful construction of the growth of loyalty between these characters – particularly the slow development of Donnie’s feelings of genuine friendship towards Lefty. What’s effective is that this is a gradual process without a definable key moment. Instead, it becomes rather touching as Donnie starts to avoid moving closer to better “contacts” in order to remain close to Lefty. Donnie Brasco might be one of the few films that really gets a type of male friendship, and the unspoken emotional bonds that underpin them.
Perhaps the best things about Donnie Brasco are the two wonderful performances we get from actors who never knowlingly underplay. Watching this and Ed Wood is a reminder of the actor Johnny Depp could have been, before clowning in Pirates of the Caribbean seemed to shatter his focus. Brasco/Pistone is a brilliantly low-key presentation of a fractured personality. At first, the differentiation between the two personalities is distinct and clear – but as the film progresses, Depp allows the two to almost c/ollapse into each other. Everything from his body language to his manner of speaking slowly repositions itself as he becomes more consumed by the gangster world. Depp is also very good at not losing track of Pistone’s horror at murder and violence, while allowing the Brasco persona to take part in its aftereffects. The quiet building of guilt in his eyes at the fate he is creating for Lefty is also gently underplayed, making it more effective.
However, this is Al Pacino’s movie. It's certainly Pacino’s last great performance: with the added frisson that he’s Michael Corleone demoted to the bottom rung of the ladder, Pacino is magnetic. Lefty is a put-upon whiner, who still has a charisma of his youth that draws Donnie (and others) in. A man of strong moral principles, who treats Donnie with a fatherly regard, uncomfortable with much of the ostentation of his fellow gangsters, he’s also a ruthless killer who blithely shrugs off his killing of an old friend. All Pacino’s bombast is only rarely deployed for impact – instead Lefty is a low-key, almost sad figure, whose chance in life has passed by.
One extraordinary scene late on deserves particular mention. I won’t spoil things too much, but Lefty prepares to leave the house after a phone call full of bad news. Carefully, sadly, he smartens himself up then returns (after saying goodbye to his wife) to gently remove his valuables and leave them in a drawer for his wife – he even carefully leaves the drawer ajar so she can find it. Setting himself before leaving the house, he takes a small look around. It’s a beautifully gentle scene, which could be overloaded with meaning from another actor, but Pacino plays it with such quiet but intense focus, and such careful precision it works brilliantly. Take a look at the scene here (warning spoilers!)
Newell’s strength as an actor’s director is apparent in all the performances, and Donnie Brasco is a film of many wonderful scenes and moments. The film never loses track of the danger of undercover heart – and several striking scenes have Pistone close to being discovered. The film is not perfect: the aim of the FBI investigation, and the impact Donnie’s work are never really made clear and the scenes involving Pistone’s homelife feel far more predictable and conventional than the rest of the movie (Anne Heche has a thankless part). But when it focuses on the two leads, and their dynamism together, it’s a damn fine film. It’s not going to challenge Goodfellas as a story of low-key hoods, but it’s certainly a worthy addition to cinema’s mafia films.