The year is 1952, the place is the Brooklyn waterfront, and everything is…blue. Metallically, nightmarishly blue. Last Exit to Brooklyn must be the first movie about the 1950s that looks like it was shot during a nuclear winter. The film’s phosphorescent ugliness is so garish you practically have to watch it through Ray-Bans.
Based on Hubert Selby Jr.’s celebrated and controversial 1964 book of stories, Last Exit to Brooklyn wants to be a countermyth of the ’50s, an apocalyptic vision of the underbelly of the greaser era. The characters taunt and yell at each other, and the movie keeps assaulting us with lurid tidbits — bloody beatings and stabbings, drug addicts nodding out in the bathroom, oral sex in back alleys. At the same time, a thick, sentimental soundtrack bathes the decadence in nostalgia.
In Last Exit to Brooklyn, the Brooklyn waterfront has become a vast, crumbling hellhole dominated by shadowy forces. The Korean War is on, and the local military base has created an influx of GIs and sailors, transients who love to stir up trouble. At the same time, a six-month strike at a local factory threatens to erupt into violence. Rock & roll hasn’t been invented yet (or at least popularized), and so there’s no vibrant public outlet for people’s energies. Their hearts have hardened and the life that oozes from the cracks is miserable and degraded, relieved only by a sordid vitality.
An outwardly strong and respected union shop steward (Stephen Lang) is, in fact, a tortured homosexual. A young transvestite (Alexis Arquette) flaunts his swishiness before the local toughs and then eases his self-loathing by shooting himself up with heroin. A haughty blond floozy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has let herself be exploited by men so often she has prostituted her soul away. Here, as in The Men’s Club, Miami Blues, and many other films, Jennifer Jason Leigh gives an accomplished sexpot performance — she’s becoming the Meryl Streep of bimbos. Yet I always have the same trouble with Leigh. Her characters are so oriented toward men that they don’t reveal enough emotions of their own.
Last Exit to Brooklyn is certainly ”hard-hitting” — it’s trying so hard to hit you it never stops. The German team of director Uli Edel and producer Bernd Eichinger, who earlier collaborated on the unblinking — and immensely successful — portrait of a teenage heroin addict Christiane F., have merged Selby’s stories into a crazy quilt of urban violence and rot. As a director, Edel specializes in didactic squalor: His movies are sensationalistic in a heavy, overdeliberate way.
Last Exit to Brooklyn has some of the programmatic gloom of a ’50s studio picture like On the Waterfront, only heightened, intensified — for now, of course, the ”dark side” can be shown in all its naked depravity. Yet one can’t help but wonder: Were things really this bad? Selby’s book is considered a gutbucket classic of the post-Beat era, but its hellish vision was, in part, a reaction to the stifling postwar optimism of ’50s America. Now, it seems overdone — especially when recreated with this much hyperbolic showmanship. Last Exit to Brooklyn is so relentless it’s not of this world.