Thursday, November 04, 2010

Back to Jersey

Now that the midterm election is finally over, and as we wait for the inevitable GOP overreach, it's time to return to the arts, specifically the television arts, and a new show that, eight episodes in, has become an addiction for the past several weeks.

I speak, of course, of HBO's Boardwalk Empire, which takes place in Prohibition Era Atlantic City and follows the web of crime surrounding and often led by Enouch "Nucky" Thompson, County Treasurer and king of the town.

There's the noted pedigree, of course, of Creator and Executive Producer Terence Winter of The Sopranos fame, and no less than Martin Scorsese, Executive Producer and Director of the tone/look-setting first episode. Like many HBO shows (including The Wire and Six Feet Under) it took sticking to it through a number of episodes before the hooks caught. I trace my first perking up to episode four, when Michael Kenneth Williams (all hail Omar from The Wire) finally received a great monologue to deliver in his role of Chalky White:

The final hook was the end of the following episode, when Kelly MacDonald as Margaret Schroeder brings the FBI to raid lead character Nucky Thompson's (Steve Buscemi) big private event and he responds by showing up at her door and initiating their romance. Since then the intrigue has heightened, the violence and sex ramped up, and whether it's entirely accurate or not, they makers are doing a notable job of creating a 1920's atmosphere, if in a way we've never quite experienced before. I expect they looked at films like Scarface and The Roaring Twenties for inspiration, 1930's pictures that basically depicted the crime scene of that era. It's particularly strong in the grotesques, most notably a disfigured World War I veteran sharpshooter wearing the type of mask that had to do in that pre-plastic surgery era, just introduced (with a bang) this past week:

It doesn't hurt that the character, Richard Harrow, is played by Jack Huston, grandson of legendary Director-Writer-Actor John Huston, known for him crime films himself. The show may also be a turning point in respect for Gretchen Mol, who goes the distance and then some as a showgirl with loose morals. In movie-actor-studded cast, Michael Shannon is another standout, playing sexually repressed (or perhaps heavily sublimated into his work) FBI agent Nelson Van Alden. Michael Stuhlbarg, coming off his genius lead in the Coen Bros A Serious Man, plays legendary Jewish mobster and World Series fixer Arnold Rothstein. And English actor Stephen Graham (Public Enemies, Snatch, This is England, Band of Brothers) plays a convincingly insecure, unpredictable and violent young Al Capone.

But the guy you really can't take your eyes off is Michael Pitt as James "Jimmy" Darmody, Nucky's protege and maybe (it seems hinted at) his son by way of Gretchen Mol's Gillian. Pitt first received notice in sexually provocative material, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers. He's also worked with Gus Van Sant playing a Kurt Cobain-modeled character and has his own band, the Brooklyn-based Pagoda, where he leads as vocalist and guitarist. Not a typical career for a major leading man in the making, but that's what he feels like on this show.

Pitt's Jimmy is a war vet himself, carrying hidden wounds, having thrown away half a Princeton education and an out-of-wedlock child. His trajectory thus far has taken him from a backwoods booze hijacking gone wrong to Chicago where he's gotten in with Capone and his mob bosses, but it looks like he's headed back to A.C. soon (per this trailer for Episode 8):

Pitt is so period in his looks, the tempo of his movements, his voice and demeanor that you can easily imagine yourself watching this character, this actor in a silent movie from that era. His profile, in particular, seems straight out of the type of drawings found on magazine covers of that era. The perfect R-rated movie star -- every moment, you're wondering what he's going to do next.

If there's more to say about the show's themes or that of individual episodes, that'll have to be for another post. I'll just leave it that we're watching a world pretending to be on the up-and-up on the outside but drenched in corruption just through the door, where Prohibition is a public fig leaf but merely enables the powerful to dilute their liquor ten-fold and makes exponentially more money than they would have under full disclosure.

Come to think of it, sounds a little like post-Citizens United America. A little like the election that just kicked it off.

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