Many films like to depict 1950s America like some kind of warm and fuzzy dreamland, glowing through the golden light of sepia hued nostalgia and manufactured optimism. Filled with poodle skirts, drive-in theaters, slicked back hair, and hopeful spirits, the myth of a cookie-cutter post-war era proliferated by sitcoms and classic cinema is a partial facade, hiding a more dark and cynical underbelly. 'Last Exit to Brooklyn' is about that underbelly. It digs deep into that underbelly. It dives headfirst into that underbelly, right on into the guts and intestines and blood, thrusting us all into the filth and depravity with it. The 1950s Brooklyn depicted here is not the stuff of dreams, but rather nightmares. It is a hellish mass of concrete and despair, where the cries of injustice go unheard, and man's primal desires for flesh and bloodshed are never quite satiated. It is a place awash with misery, and its inhabitants are the lost, the dreamers who grew bitter and jaded, or those so ingrained with gloom that that they never once thought to dream at all. This is a film about the desolation of the human soul, and through his unflinching look at cruelty and pain, director Uli Edel dares to go where few filmmakers tread.
Based on the controversial novel of the same name written by Hubert Selby, Jr. (who also wrote the similarly devastating 'Requiem for a Dream'), the story follows the lives of several characters trying to survive the hardships of lower class 1950s Brooklyn. There's Harry Black (Stephen Lang), a union worker who slowly realizes he's a homosexual, Vinnie (Peter Dobson), a young punk who engages in frivolous violence and mayhem with his friends, and Tralala (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a local prostitute who meets a kindhearted soldier. All of these despairing stories connect with one another to various degrees, and an overarching plot involving a union strike stays ever present in the background, before eventually exploding into the forefront. As the story progresses we delve deeper and deeper into the darkest recesses of the human condition, and what follows is a violent and disturbing portrayal of animalistic cruelty and self destruction, all at the hands of human-shaped figures with hollowed out eyes, who struggle to reclaim that spark they've long since lost.
The cast is uniformly excellent, but the two standouts are definitely Stephen Lang and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Lang's confusion and frustration with his sexuality is handled well, and his brief flirtation with happiness only makes his eventual fall that more devastating. The actor brings just the right amount of naivety, strength, and desperation to the role, and his journey toward the bottom is heartbreaking to bear. As the greedy but vulnerable prostitute, Tralala, Jennifer Jason Leigh is a tragic mixture of unrestrained sexuality, deep rooted insecurity, and closed off emotion. While merely engaging in a disturbing and sexually explicit role doesn't automatically make an actress's performance fearless, in the case of Leigh's work here, there is perhaps no better word. She is courageous, not just for enduring and embracing the heavy subject matter, but for engrossing herself in the character so fully and completely that she vanishes. She is a woman who wants to be desired, but can't seem to understand love. When a man she meets starts to show her kindness, it's as if she doesn't know what to do with it, and when it's gone, it leads to a climax that features one of the most unsettling sequences I've ever come across. It's not only hard to watch, it's actually painful.
From its menacing opening shot to its devastating conclusion, director Uli Edel instills a kind of carefully controlled dread throughout the proceedings. Unrelentingly dark in both atmosphere and appearance, the production design and cinematography present a world soaked in grime and sickness. Hints of vibrant colors struggle to shine through but never can, and shadows obscure light in a hazy display of almost perpetual night. Even scenes that take place during the day lack any kind of warmth, with a solemn palette hanging low in an overcast sky. There are even times when the marriage of dark imagery and unsettling score start to evoke the unreal grotesquery of David Lynch, but Edel holds back just enough to keep us mostly planted within the waking world. One sequence involving a violent riot of union workers is particularly noteworthy, and is an expertly realized burst of choreographed chaos that builds and escalates with precision and power. Both eerily expressionistic and devastatingly realistic, Edel's style perfectly suits the material.
Despite the undeniable power and skill on display, the reality is that the film comes dangerously close to completely collapsing in on itself. The dark subject matter carries great weight and makes for a difficult viewing experience, and there are times when the intensifying pile-up of savage events teeter toward the melodramatic and gratuitous. Thankfully, while certain scenes can go slightly over-the-top, and the constant fits of cruelty and dread can be a bit much to endure, Edel manages to keep enough command over the film's rough and disquieting tone to hold the movie a loft where it might otherwise crumble into a meaningless exercise of revulsion. While there are times when the characters come distressingly close to turning into maudlin caricatures, they never do, and despite their grave injustices to one another and themselves, they remain irrevocably human. Some might criticize the film for its violence and sexual material, but I never quite found it to be gratuitous, and every agonizing frame has a purpose.
'Last Exit to Brooklyn' is a powerful and disturbing portrait of lost souls. A merciless descent into violence and depravity, the true horror of the story lies in its reality. In the included special features, the filmmakers remark about how they had no interest in making a completely hopeless work, and that it was their intent that the piece end with some measure of optimism. While I respect that aim, for me, the potential hope of the film's final images can't help but ring falsely, but that isn't meant as criticism. Though the director may not have sought to create an "apocalyptic" story, that is exactly what he's made, and its striking and unsettling content make for a difficult yet potent experience. This is not an easy film to watch, but its story of self destruction and savagery is painfully insightful.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Summit Entertainment presents 'Last Exit to Brooklyn' on a BD-50 disc housed in a standard case. After some logos and warnings the disc transitions to a standard menu. The packaging indicates that the disc is region A compatible.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Flat, bleak, and subdued, this is a rather ugly looking film that while certainly intentional, is underwhelming on Blu-ray.
The print is in decent shape though there are a few specks throughout. Grain is visible but the picture has a very soft, rough appearance and fine detail is comparatively average. Colors are very subdued and muddy with a murky palette that, with the exception of Tralala's wardrobe, exhibits no real pop (again, this is intentional). Any true sense of substantial depth is rare, and the image has a predominantly flat quality. Black levels can be slightly elevated in some shots and shadow detail is sometimes crushed. Contrast is periodically low, leading to an overall washed out appearance, but there are instances where whites show pleasing intensity that offer a nice counterpoint to the prevalent shadows. Many scenes have a faintly fuzzy image, but this all seems to be a result of the intentional gritty cinematography.
'Last Exit to Brooklyn' is an ugly looking film, but that's exactly how it's supposed to look. Though seemingly authentic and fitting, by its very nature, the image can't help but be unappealing and average. With its muddy colors, lack of substantial fine detail, and overall murky appearance, the video complements the content, but simply can't impress in a traditional sense (nor should it). I'm a little hesitant to say that this is the absolute best that the film can look on Blu-ray, but it's probably very close.
The audio is presented in an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix with optional English SDH subtitles. Though subtle and a bit front heavy at times, this is a solid and occasionally immersive track.
Dialogue is clean and clear with no crackles or hissing. Directionality is good, and while there are stretches where activity is mostly geared toward the front soundstage, surrounds do get some welcomed use. Ambient effects throughout the seedy city, bars, and nightclubs fill the rears, adding delicate bits of immersion and atmosphere, bringing the grimy, dirty world of 1950s Brooklyn to life. Dynamic range offers a nice gamut of distortion free frequencies, giving everything from the tiny squeals of tires to the desperate cries of the film's distraught characters, ample room to breathe. While mostly subdued, bass does get a few notable moments to shine, particularly during scenes which feature an explosion and a massive riot. Balance between speech, score, and effects is good.
Nuanced but still potent, the film offers some interesting sound design choices. With its foreboding, melancholy score and disturbing atmosphere, the audio mix does a good job of placing the audience within a gritty and hellish world.
Summit Entertainment has put together a slim but worthwhile pair of supplements, including a making of doc and a commentary. The special features are presented in standard definition with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound and no subtitles.
'Last Exit to Brooklyn' is a tough film to watch. Its dark subject matter and unsettling depiction of sex and violence might turn off many, but there is meaning and purpose behind the pain and suffering. A somber examination of lost souls and self destruction, the film manages to find humanity among the damned. Video quality is authentic but underwhelming, with an intentionally gritty and at times rather ugly appearance. Audio is subtle but immersive. Though there are only two supplements, they are very interesting and certainly worth your time. While not for everyone, if you're already a fan of the film, or are open to accepting its disturbing content, this disc comes recommended.