Auds may feel a sense of deja vu while watching the blackly comic crime thriller “Staten Island,” which, given its tripartite structure and Ethan Hawke’s role as a screw-up, could have been titled “Before the Devil Knows You’ve Changed Boroughs.” Still, there’s enough originality and verve in writer-helmer James DeMonaco’s debut to make for compelling viewing. Although firmly embedded in Gotham’s suburbs, the pic’s quirky blend of striking violence and unembarrassed sentimentality betokens strong influence from French co-producer Luc Besson, whose Europa Corp. will release “Staten” in Gaul this March. Offshore, the pic could board the ferry to moderate biz.
Structurally reminiscent of, most immediately, Sidney Lumet’s late masterwork “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” — and going further back, “Pulp Fiction,” “Sin City,” “Amores perros” and any number of pics with nonlinear, Venn-diagrammatic plots — “Staten Island” pivots around a superficially inconsequential but emotionally charged scene in a deli, where the pic’s three main characters all meet before the action jumps back and forth to show what happened before that moment and what will happen after it.
In the first section, local Mafia boss Parmelo “Parmy” Tarzo (Vincent D’Onofrio, creepy and comical by turns) unveils to underlings his plan to take over all the organized crime on Staten Island. But someone betrays him, and after an unsuccessful assassination attempt, Parmy takes refuge up a tree in a woodland skedded for deforestation, drawing media attention.
Second section finds septic-tank cleaner Sully (Hawke, effective), who’s ashamed of his low IQ, devising a plan to rob Parmy to obtain $50,000. With the money, Sully and his missus, Mary (Julianne Nicholson), can take part in an in-vitro fertilization study that pre-selects fetuses for intelligence.
Third and last section focuses on deaf-mute deli man Jasper (a touchingly expressive Seymour Cassel, in a part that’s just a bit too sappily written), a friend of Sully’s, who’s been forced by Parmy’s gang for years to carve up the corpses of those they’ve whacked.
Once that’s been established, it’s not hard to predict where the story’s going, although a few pleasurable twists lie in wait. Although it might look like strictly-by-the-book genre material on paper, the script by helmer DeMonaco (whose writing credits include the remake of “Assault on Precinct 13” and TV series “The Kill Point”) throws in a few wacky deviations from the template, such as Parmy’s obsession with beating the world record for holding his breath underwater, or his weird, sudden ascension to the trees — a plot point that doesn’t quite make sense, but keeps auds aware that anything could happen.
Similarly, several key sequences are fashioned in a pleasingly off-kilter way. In the scene where a gunman shoots at Parmy, the sound kicks in with a subsonic rumble that’s almost uncomfortable to listen to. The shootout climax unfolds not in the series of fast cuts one would expect from a crime pic, but in one long, beautifully choreographed take (kudos are due to lenser Chris Norr).
All in all, despite a tangible sense of place stemming from the use of Staten Island and surrounding locations, the pic has a weirdly European vibe about it, by way of the Tarantino school of knowingness — rising perhaps from the over-ironic, slightly mocking chapter titles that introduce each section.
Likewise, the perfs err a bit on the broad side. It’s never quite clear whether auds are supposed to laugh at or feel sorry for the characters trapped in snares of their own devising.