Donnie Brasco

(Mike Newell, USA, 1997)


The moment in Donnie Brasco where the whole movie suddenly makes sense and comes together is also the very last line of the film. In these last seconds, a woman speaks from off-screen to her undercover cop husband (Johnny Depp), her words forming a simple, everyday phrase: “Let’s go home”.

But those simple words bring out the most vacant and haunted expression you’ve ever seen on the face of Depp, and you know straight away that this guy is lost – that, in a deep sense, he’ll never find his way home.

Let me linger on this phrase: let’s go home. It occurs frequently in the final scenes of films, particularly American films. We all know The Wizard of Oz (1939) and its lesson, “there’s no place like home” – an iconic film whose apparent certainties have been dug into, and overturned, by Salman Rushdie in his BFI Classic monograph, and by Australian filmmaker Jackie Farkas in her absolutely devastating short The Illustrated Auschwitz (1992).

Then there’s the classic Western by John Ford, The Searchers (1956), which ends with John Wayne sweeping up Natalie Wood: she’s been captured and made over by Indians, and – as many critics have said down the years – you don’t know for a second whether he’s about to kill her or kiss her. But what he says, after that breathtaking, ambivalent pause, is the reassuring phrase: “Let’s go home, Debbie”. Something similar is said at the end of one of the many contemporary movies that pays homage to The Searchers: the very tough Robert de Niro comedy Mad Dog and Glory (1993).

In a broader sense, it is easy to see how many films play on the incredible tension between home – as the safe place, the resting place – and everything that is not home, that whole wide world of danger, adventure, risk and desire. Lesley Stern, in her book The Scorsese Connection, calls this the dialectic of home and away, punning on the title of a famous, homely Aussie television soap.

Many movies start and end with the static security of home, while in the middle comes the roaming, and the trouble and delight that come with roaming. (Cue a DJ battle of two very sad and wistful tracks: Leonard Cohen’s setting of Lord Byron’s "Go No More A-Roving" against Nick Cave’s definitive gesture of irony, "Right Now I’m A -Roaming".) There’s no story without the roaming; but equally there’s no peace without a home base, no redemption without the drive to get back home.

Then there are films where you start from home, but you never get back there. Or if you get back there, it’s in flames, or being taken apart, or it’s empty. Such films can be bleak, and extremely unsettling in a literal sense. John CassavetesHusbands (1970), for instance, where three guys tear off together to London for a wild weekend, get very drunk and screw around; the movie ends with a simple but devastating scene of Ben Gazzara limping up his suburban family driveway as his son whines “Mom’s been cryin’, and boy, you’re gonna get it!”

Or the films of Abel Ferrara which almost always start with a man walking out of his front door at the start of a working day, whether he’s a cop or a criminal or a movie director, saying goodbye to his wife and kids – and all these journeys end in death and desolation, with nobody getting home free. My examples might make the problem of home-and-away sound like an exclusively masculine anxiety, a ‘don’t fence me in’ complex. But that’s not so: in movies, think of Meryl Streep’s acute agony about home and hearth in The Bridges of Madison County (1995), or Christine Lahti’s free-fall from domesticity in Housekeeping (1987).

So the idea of home is a true cultural obsession – a problem we all live, every day, across varying degrees of acute critical awareness, or vaguely disturbed waking slumber. Strangely enough, if there’s one particular plot formula within popular cinema that triggers an especially agonised reflection on home and its discontents, it’s the undercover detective plot beloved of television cop shows and crime fiction of all varieties.

Many undercover stories are completely mild and routine. These are mild dress-up fantasies, sometimes involving the thrill of crossing the tracks of social division: a person disguises himself or herself, and enters a world that is in every respect antithetical to their normal world. So the placid wife gets to play a hooker, or a staid guy gets to run with a street gang. Television cop shows are full of these mildly titillating and suspenseful stories of law-and-order masquerade.

But there also some very intense dramas of undercover disguise on the big screen, where it seems that everything is at stake – not just a particular murder case or crime racket, but the identity, the very selfhood of the one who is undercover. Even if they do make it back home by the final scene, the big question turns out to be: exactly who are they, now, after their transformative adventure in the underworld?

Films such as William Friedkin‘s unfairly maligned Cruising (1980) – where Al Pacino goes undercover in a gay leather subculture – give these dramatic questions a slow, solemn, almost abstract grandiloquence, as if what we are witnessing is some apocalyptic twilight of the gods, not just the story of some guys in a ghetto or barrio.

Donnie Brasco starts right in at this high pitch. The credits are plastered over with broody still images of Johnny Depp’s sad, searching eyes. It’s a slightly overwrought effect, but it certainly alerts you to the film’s intentions. Director Mike Newell’s big hit was the crowd-pleasing confection Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), but Donnie Brasco takes him back to the dark, nihilistic terrain he explored in Dance with a Stranger (1985).

Newell has a fondness for zombie-type characters – sleepwalkers who implode in a crisis, and who walk blankly through a scenario littered with murders and immoral and amoral actions of various shades. He is an interesting mixture of British and American cinema impulses: his stylistic restraint is very British, but his slightly gruesome take on alienation and crisis puts him near those American filmmakers of the unsettled soul, like Cassavetes and Ferrara.

In Newell’s hands, it’s clear that Donnie Brasco aims to be the definitive meditation on the metaphysics of undercover masquerade. We never know Joe (Depp) in his ordinary life before he enters the criminal underworld. There are only brief, painful glimpses of the breakdown of his marriage, and his growing estrangement from his children. This distance helps to give the movie its chilly, unmoored feeling.

Joe’s target in this underworld, the seeming lynchpin of all the power relations that have to be infiltrated and exposed, is Lefty (Al Pacino – this time crossing to the other side of the undercover scenario). Lefty is in many respects one of the screen’s supreme middling, ordinary gangsters. He doesn’t wear the glamour of evil and menace; neither is he some tragic loser set on auto-destruct. Above all, he’s no innocent, no fool. When Joe first encounters him in a bar, he seems like some low-life nut, but he quickly becomes a surprisingly likable figure, cagey and witty. His eagerness to teach his new protégé everything he knows, and his evident frazzled distress when the mob boss calls him in, possibly to kill him: all these emotions are conveyed in a touching and endearing manner.

Undercover movies usually play on a typical, generic kind of suspense. The undercover agent has to stay out in the field, to maintain his disguise at all costs, no matter what doubts or clues to the contrary arise in the mind of various mobsters. Joe also has to hang on because the criminal power network that he infiltrates seems unfathomable, bottomless – and hanging in there always offers the prospect of getting a little closer to Mr Big, or to the logic of the whole system.

But this movie is not, despite its gritty, low-life surfaces, and its basis in a true-life case, a realistic depiction of an investigation. It plays more like a dream – or a nightmare. In this hushed underworld, all rituals are mysterious, secretive and paranoid – a little like in that great, strange John Garfield movie Force of Evil (1948), where even the bad guys speak in elliptical, allusive blank verse.

The time that Joe spends in this parched and lonely place seems to stretch out to infinity. Newell deliberately drains the plot of tension and urgency; we enter a floating underworld of cryptic signs, gestures and exchanges. There’s one fairly standard sequence devoted to Joe’s struggle to conceal the surveillance devices that he’s wearing, but it’s a rare moment of action-drama in the movie.

The core of this movie is the intense relationship that develops between Lefty and Joe. Lefty becomes a father-figure to Joe, or perhaps more accurately an older brother figure. He is the mentor, the teacher, the one who looks out for, and always vouches for the new, young guy under his wing. Lefty even takes Joe into his cramped, suburban apartment when he gets the idea that Joe has no home to go to for Christmas – and naturally, this is a move that puts further stress on Joe’s real home situation.

In return for all his guidance and friendliness, Lefty demands total loyalty from Joe, and he demands it like he gives it. In one of the most compelling scenes of Donnie Brasco, Lefty pulls a gun on Joe as he speculates about what he would have to do to Joe if he ever betrayed their trust; in the middle of this scary rant, he suddenly puts the gun to his own head – a melodramatic gesture to explain that to be betrayed by his best friend would instantly mean that he would want to die too.

In scenes like this, where the tragic, fraught complicity between blood brothers plays itself out to the bitter end, Donnie Brasco has a touch of Tennessee Williams or John Steinbeck about it. I thought of the various movie versions of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and also Aleksi Vellis’ intense Australian film about low-life crims, Nirvana Street Murder (1990).

What really distinguishes Donnie Brasco is the contributions of its two great leading actors. Pacino is more restrained here than he can otherwise be; he’s back to the kind of careful, controlled work he did in De Palma’s Carlito’s Way (1993), although it is hard to think of two criminal characters more different than Lefty and Carlito. Pacino in this part conveys a quality of blind trust in Joe, dumb love even, that is compelling – and also very painful, because we know the bigger picture of deceit that is framing this whole relationship.

Depp, who is equally good, has to register a quite different set of states and emotions than those entrusted to Pacino. Indeed, one of the finest achievements of this movie is the way it holds together two character trajectories, two stories that in a way never really share the same narrative space or mood. Joe’s interior ‘journey’, such as it is, is a secret, uncertain one. He slowly swaps one personality for another, with perhaps no road back to his original ‘self’. In a memorable detail, Joe meets up with his wife back home; he’s almost like a stranger, a furtive interloper in his own house. His accent, and the distinctive phrases he uses when he speaks, all belong to his undercover persona. Shuffling nervously on the spot, defensive and edgy like a caged animal, completely unsettled, he has come to know for himself the sobering lesson that Salman Rushdie drew from The Wizard of Oz – that there’s no place, anywhere, that’s anything like our collective dream of Home.

MORE Newell: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Mona Lisa Smile

© Adrian Martin June 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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