How fitting, just the other day I announce my intentions to watch ever film Martin Scorsese ever made and in a Christmas in July bit of serendipity, a new one fell right into my lap.
Now yes, I know that Boardwalk Empire isn’t "really" a movie, it’s just a pilot for the new HBO series Scorsese is producing. About the empire of Nucky Thompson a city councilman and general “power behind the throne type.” Who found himself the perfect middleman between the gangster’s of New York and Chicago, and the vast thirsty market that was the Eastern Seaboard.
There are a few moments that unmistakably perform the business of setting things up for an ongoing series, most notably Michael K. William’s agonizingly brief appearance. And the digital backlot screams “high end TV” even though Scorsese makes it all magic hour dream light. But make no mistake bookended the opening and closing irises is a complete artistic statement in the way that something like “Mirror Mirror” just isn’t.
No matter how good or bad the rest of the series is (And I’m guessing it’s going to be pretty fucking grand) this stands both intricately connected and completely apart. A seventy three minute movie about a man staring responsibility in the face.
The film can be summed up with the contrast between two scenes. In the first, Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson, sits patiently in the audience of a woman’s temperance movement as a stereotypical old dowager reads a hysterical (in every sense) poem “Owed To Liquor.” Nucky gets up, relates an even more sanctimonious and shameless anecdote, then excuses himself from the proceedings, laughs off the dowagers, takes a hearty sip from his flask, and that night at the raucous party being thrown in celebration of Prohibition he lifts his glass and toasts, to “Well meaning morons.”
Nucky laughs. We laugh. It’s funny, Boardwalk Empire is perhaps the funniest thing that Scorsese has ever directed (“Stop calling me cowboy.”)
But later, Nucky is confronted by the poem, in much less cheerful circumstances. As he learns of the terrible consequences brought about by a half assed act of charity, furthered by an ill timed act of rage, and fueled by yes as ridiculous as the upright citizen brigade looks, his liquor. The one soft point we’re aware that Nucky has is exploited, terribly. And we know from the shattered look on Buscemi’s face, that no matter how terrible the fallout is it won’t erase the stain of his guilt.
We’re in Scorsese territory after all.
Oh and for the record, the fallout is fucking terrible.
This is the closest we’re every probably going to see to an NC-17 Scorsese film. Its bloody, its absolutely brutal, and it has so much sex and nudity in it that I think that every sitting member of the MPAA had a stroke just from this thing playing on the airwaves (if only we were that lucky).
Buscemi stands at the center of it, radiating his own brand of charisma, Scorsese surrounds him with great underused character actors. Including Michael Pitt, Kelly McDonald, Michael Shannon and most of all the great Stephen Graham, playing Al Capone with a mixture of the innocence of a mean little boy and the glee of a sociopath.
Scorsese fills it with set pieces that memorize with his trademark detail, including the obligatory LAT (Long ass tracking shot), two scenes of Buscemi peering through a storefront that have an almost Lynchian intensity, and a wash of mesmerizing period detail.
But all that stuff in a Scorsese film is just that. Detail.
What’s fuels each Scorsese film is that sense of responsibility, of yes Catholic Guilt. The film ends with the old age of the romanticized “Mustache Petes” being blown away (quite literally) to make room for the new tyros fed by the opportunity provided by prohibition. And Nucky. It’s doubtless that before the series ends, he will pay harshly because of that.