Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Neglected Gem: Stormy Monday (1988)

Melanie Griffith and Sean Bean in Stormy Monday (1988).

Set in Newcastle, Stormy Monday is a cool, clean crime drama with an emotional authority that builds quietly and finally takes control. It begins like an Altman picture, but in lower key and smaller scale, with disorienting cuts between characters who don’t realize their fates are about to converge. Kate (Melanie Griffith) is an American woman kept in luxury by a crooked real estate developer who makes both private and public use of her; miserable with herself, she keeps a side job waiting tables, apparently so she can feel halfway honest. The developer, Frank Cosmo (Tommy Lee Jones), a Texas Machiavelli, is sweeping into Newcastle in advance of “America Week,” a flag-festooned public-relations boondoggle meant to camouflage a fast, cheap buy-out of local businesses. The spanner in the works is Finney (Sting), a well-off but dissolute club owner smart enough to see what Cosmo is up to, and intransigent enough to resist selling. The relative innocent in this land of moral compromise is Brendan (Sean Bean), a rootless apartment sitter who answers a newspaper ad, orders a steak, and finds himself at the center of everyone else’s messes – all of which come to a head at the end of the movie’s three days and nights.

Written and directed by Mike Figgis, Stormy Monday has a flawlessly sustained mood and a singular temper. It’s both cool and urgent, laconic and alive with possibility. Scenes blend and stories cross with the unemphatic assurance of film narrative that knows it is going somewhere enticing, dangerous, and unknown, and that it will enjoy getting there. The noir attitude is not presumed, it is achieved – with raw, stone-colored daylight scenes, and darkness that gleams with metal and colored light. Figgis also has the Altman gift of getting actors on his wavelength, so that everything from off-camera gazes to intimate interactions attunes with the sensualities of lighting and cutting. Aurally, Stormy Monday motors intently on the energy of a jazz score, also written by Figgis, that is at once unobtrusive and ubiquitous. Yet from the surrounding clatter of industry to the voice of a disc jockey who promotes America Week by aping a Yank accent, the movie is also driven by abstract noise, an atmosphere of the random – and this has its payoff as well. Hired by Finney to work at his jazz club, Brendan is dispatched to babysit a visiting Polish band that plays the noisiest and most violent, the freest of free jazz. Their performance is an atonal frenzy that explodes the cool drift of the soundtrack, and helps through purely musical means to push the narrative to its climax. That that climax involves a literal explosion, and claims characters who have found each other precisely because of the jazz band’s accidental presence, is a weird, bitter, beautiful twist.

The characters surprise us over and over, and their allure is inextricable from that of the actors who play them. Frank Cosmo may be the quintessential Tommy Lee Jones performance, full of irony and malice, a sour huckster’s smile, the impeccable dryness of an offhand putdown. An irremediably corrupt man, Cosmo nevertheless has enormous style and confidence. He takes delight in himself; even his patsies delight him, if only briefly. For this viewer, every memorable thing Jones has done in the last 30 years lives in the thin, fine shadow of this underappreciated performance. Sean Bean’s rare achievement is to make his character’s intelligence consonant with his innocence: Brendan is shy and reticent, but also watchful and patient. Bean incarnates decency so well that it was a shock, years later, to see him in 1974, the first part of the 2009 Red Riding trilogy, playing a man so unfathomably bad that his dark spirit hung over the entirety of that desperate and disturbing series of films. And it was wholly because of the beheading of Bean’s Eddard Stark that I gave up Game of Thrones after the first season: that kind of breathtaking, all-bets-are-off massacre move became familiar to the show’s fans, but I found the loss of the character and the actor too disheartening to get past. 

Tommy Lee Jones (left) and Sting (right) in Stormy Monday.

The most unexpected performances come from Sting and Melanie Griffith. Throughout the eighties, from the video for “Every Breath You Take” (1983) to David Lynch’s Dune (1985) and beyond, the former Police front man and well-known devotee of Tantric sex projected the campy glower of a Calvin Klein cologne ad. But the active, multi-focused context of Stormy Monday makes virtues out of just those objectionable tendencies. Finney is a waster whose punkish cunning has enabled him to hold onto his businesses, his luxurious house, his wife, his mistress; he is far from likable, with little apparent love for anything beyond jazz. But he is honest after his fashion, and when his loyalties spring to the surface at the climax, they emerge as a principle, not a sop, because they have been so effectively secreted behind Sting’s sullen arrogance, his stubble, his unrelenting scowl. As for Griffith, I’m unaware of any finer performance she’s given – one in which she more ably or resonantly inhabits a real emotional range. I enjoyed Something Wild (1986) as much as anyone, but that was a showdown plot that demanded certain very specific extremes from its actors. In Stormy Monday, for all its narrative involutions, the tone depends on the action seeming to emerge from moods and feelings – and those are Griffith’s as much as they are anyone’s. In a barroom scene, Kate tells Brendan about the little Minnesota town where she has come from, and Griffith smiles bashfully as she repeats the Scandinavian name: the touch is naturalistic yet unexpected, a flicker illuminating the woman’s interior. That conversation prepares for the film’s most touching scene, when Kate, visiting a Polish social club with Brendan and the jazz group, listens to the denizens sing a mournful old-world folk song: suddenly Kate finds herself singing, remembering, and crying. Griffith’s expression of pain and loss – pressing her hand to her head, closing her eyes tightly – is mature and complete, and there is nothing remotely saccharine about it.    

Clearly, Mike Figgis has wizardry in him – the wizardry of a director who can lure out such work, who can orchestrate camera glide and human action in such a cogent, compelling unity. Figgis has had a long and varied career, most of which has made scant impact in the United States. He went from Stormy Monday to Hollywood, where he made the commercially successful, perfectly above-average cop drama Internal Affairs (1990), but his best-known film remains Leaving Las Vegas (1995), with Nicolas Cage in his Oscar-winning performance as an alcoholic writer opting to end his life on one last bender. That was by no means a bad movie, but it gave up all it had on the first viewing. Stormy Monday, while not thematically profound, is far deeper in its pleasures, and far subtler in its grasp of character. It’s also a tenderer, more compassionate film – despite its prevailing cool, its noir essence, its love of neon and jazz, and its clean, bracing edge which promises, like a certain breeze on a certain night, that bad things are about to happen.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College(2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

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