Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Even deprived of movie houses, cinephiles abhor a vacuum. Criterion may be their readiest source for a themed set of noteworthy films or the center-cut of an auteur’s oeuvre. Another option is to pan the metaphorical stream of mostly indifferent content for nuggets of gold. There’s especially fine below-the-radar fare from the 1990s – a fertile period for independent cinema. From one outstanding movie a veritable festival can arise.
Nick Gomez’s Laws of Gravity (1992) is a rough gem. Set in pre-gentrification Greenpoint and Williamsburg and shot in handheld verité style, it spans a few hectic days in the lives of half a dozen white working-class friends and associates who have, to a greater or lesser degree, consigned themselves to the distant margins of productive society. For the men in this crew, successful petty crime passes for upward mobility, though some get righteously nervous when it attains the level of gunrunning. The film approaches, if by a measure it doesn’t reach, the cold, incisive brilliance of Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time (1978), starring Dustin Hoffman, Theresa Russell, and M. Emmet Walsh, which mines the core tragedy of the career criminal. Uglier and more serious than Sam Henry Kass’s kindred 1994 antediluvian Red Hook romp The Search for One-Eyed Jimmy – a droll shaggy-dog story rich with cameos and before-they-were-famous appearances – Laws of Gravity is more about grim doom than jaunty survival.
As Jimmy, Peter Greene (who shows up a few years later as the twisted redneck who rapes Marcellus Wallace in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and a baleful thug in Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects) is rivetingly naturalistic and utterly convincing as a twentysomething ne’er-do-well who’s decreasingly able to get by on high school charisma and swagger. Greene could easily have played a Sal’s pizzeria corner-boy in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) – the Bed-Stuy street classic that prophesied the political momentousness of the police chokehold. But Laws of Gravity wasn’t meant to be an issue movie, and its dead-end insularity makes it something closer to a white version of Lee’s Clockers (1995), about young Black drug dealers, which takes place in a fictitious city based on Newark and Jersey City and was filmed in Gowanus.
Jimmy still bears favorable comparison to Bruce Willis’s repellent James Urbanski in Alan Rudolph’s Mortal Thoughts (1991), an inventively mordant police procedural, set in Bayonne, also featuring Demi Moore (who’s actually not bad), Harvey Keitel, and the late, under-appreciated Glenne Headly. Alongside Greene, Adam Trese as Jon – a character as annoying as but far more dangerous than Eric Roberts’s grating Paulie in Stuart Rosenberg’s The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984) – is gnawingly compelling, and perhaps even a bigger bane to Jimmy than Paulie is to Mickey Rourke’s Charlie.
The crowning significance of Laws of Gravity may be a breakout performance from Edie Falco. Here she displays the unique chops that she perfected in The Sopranos and Nurse Jackie – two of the best TV shows ever made – as well as in artfully off-kilter indies like Embeth Davitz’s 3 Backyards (2010) and the sadly departed Lynn Shelton’s Outside In (2017). As Jimmy’s tough, weary girlfriend Denise, who tends bar at the group’s local, Falco shifts seamlessly from scold to militant to casualty to protector, working tics, body-language, and mood swings with an alacrity that somehow stays duly constrained, always grounded and real. Streaming is no substitute for a cool, dark theater and some salty popcorn. But there are rewards in running across movies like Laws of Gravity and actors like Falco and Greene, and then, by association, building your own customized little film festival around them.