The Narrows DVD Review: A New York Coming-of-Age Gangster Movie

A not entirely happy amalgam of genres sometimes just makes genre-soup.
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The Narrows (2008) directed by Francois Velle stars Kevin Zegers (Mike Manadoro), Vincent D'Onofrio (Vinny Manadoro), Sophia Bush (Kathy), Eddie Cahill (Nicky Shades), Titus Welliver (Tony), Monica Keena (Gine Abruzzi), Roger Rees (Professor Reyerson), Tony Gucci (Big Lou), Melina Lizette (Luz). Based on the novel Heart of the Old Country by Tim McLoughlin.

Narrows

The Narrows is an odd fish, as movies go. It takes its name from the strait in New York City between Brooklyn and Staten Island and this is very much a New York movie, and even more a Brooklyn movie. The protagonist is nineteen-year-old Mike who works as a driver for a car-service that's heavily involved with a neighborhood tough guys while he dreams of going to college and pursuing a career in photography. He has talent enough to get a partial scholarship, but his father Vinny, played beautifully by a mostly grim-faced Vincent D'Onofrio, thinks that is a waste of time and won't pony up the rest of the money.

Mike makes the pretty bad decision of taking a "run" for his boss Tony, delivering a package once a week to earn enough to cover the rest of his tuition. It's a pretty typical case of making a deal with a crossroads demon in the sense that Mike has to straddle the divide between these two worlds, and it's not an easy thing to do. He winds up wooing a girl he meets in his photography professor's office, Kathy, and follows her to her other class, which just happens to be sociology. There's a pretty good subtle pun there, seeing as how their primary text book is all about the sociology of deviant behavior. Mike falls for Kathy despite having had a long-term girlfriend back in the neighborhood who he has promised to marry... some day.

Mike vouches for Nicky Shades for a job at the car-service. Nicky is an old neighborhood hero who should have had a football career but wound up enlisting and going to Afghanistan instead. Nicky has come back with some substantial war wounds and an even more substantial morphine addiction. Nicky becomes convinced that Tony is a problem, ruining the neighborhood and winds up pulling a gun on him, an action that has some severe consequences.

There are several plots and subplots in rotation here, Mike and his wish to get out, the interpersonal relationships between the various characters and a gangster movie theme, coupled with a healthy dose of Taxi Driver, A Bronx Tale and even Goodfellas. It manages to skate by on a slick surface, a solid soundtrack, and some very good character performances, most notably Vincent D'Onofrio's working class father, who supplies the most elegant plot twists, and Titus Welliver's kingpin Tony, who is every inch the gentleman psychopath.  Kevin Zegers can't help but look good working opposite these two and he does an overall good job of it.

The problem is this feels like several different narratives that have been cobbled together a little too loosely. In part it makes perfect sense, because it is supposed to be a collision of two very different worlds for Mike. On the one hand there's the old neighborhood with its criminality and brutality and on the other hand there is university life, which promises other things altogether, most notably the love affair with Kathy symbolizes a change in direction if the young Mike is not to go the way of the other old coots and wise guy wannabes in Brooklyn.

The photographer's distanced gaze could have been used with more authority. That's one of the things that I find a little lacking in all this. It does get used, mostly in a way that's clever enough, though I think it wouldn't have hurt to take it all the way, make that the cohesive agent in all this. It's a precarious balance at best, trying to show the deeply personal aspects of a narrative that develops like a coming-of-age character drama and at the same time make it a sort of hard-boiled gangster movie, complete with diamond theft and slit throats. It's not something that jars the viewer all that badly at the time, but there are difficulties in pacing and plot that makes the actual whole seem a little scatter shot despite its level of ambition.

I actually like some of the incongruities, but the problem is that they shine too bright a light on the clichés, which makes the overall impression a little unsteady. So, the movie lives largely on the performances, not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's again a case of watching a movie that you can feel could have been more than it is.

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