Sorrow and rage commingle in The Funeral, a fine, thoughtful, and jolting movie from director Abel Ferrara, who can go over the top with flair (Bad Lieutenant, King of New York) or with a thud (The Addiction). Set in the 1930s, The Funeral follows three brothers in organized crime, one of whom, played with nice sass by Calvin Klein model Vincent Gallo, is dead when the movie starts — it’s his funeral. Christopher Walken and Chris Penn are Gallo’s brothers, and in flashbacks we see the trio fight, carouse, bully, and debate the finer points of gunplay and extortion, as well as American communism, the labor movement, and Catholic philosophy.
”If this world stinks, it’s His fault,” announces Walken. ”I’m working with what I’ve been given.” And very well, too — Walken avoids the psycho self-parody he’s been indulging in his recent films. Penn is even better, as a big, blustery bartender who can’t square his morality with his life; his emotions explode, at first thrillingly, then tragically. (Penn also does a fabulous, movie-stopping turn singing in a Cab Calloway wail that MTV ought to snip out and put into heavy rotation right now.) With guys like Walken and Penn around, you need an antagonist who can hold the screen with an equally forceful, idiosyncratic presence. The Funeral gets just that in the terrific, wiggly Benicio Del Toro as a rival gangster — he makes a fine enemy for the squabbling brothers to unite against.
The Funeral wants to get at the violence men commit and how women suffer for it, and the quiet yet forceful performances by Annabella Sciorra (as Walken’s wife) and Isabella Rossellini (as Penn’s) remind you how good the macho Ferrara is with actresses — this is the guy, after all, who got a nuanced performance from Madonna in 1993’s Dangerous Game. While The Funeral has the usual Ferrara touches — violence with sting, sex with kink — it’s also his least typical work. Not since 1986, when he directed the pilot episode of the underrated TV series Crime Story, has Ferrara done a period piece, and if The Funeral inevitably lapses into Godfather-style grandiosity, it’s also his most clearheaded, emotional movie to date. B+