The mean streets of suburban New Jersey are at the center of “Nothing to Lose ,” a vibrantly energetic, highly emotional exploration of camaraderie, rivalry and betrayal among a trio of youngsters. Eric Bross’ stunning directorial debut boasts bravura style and a strong acting ensemble, headed by Adrien Brody’s central, star-making performance. Prospects for theatrical release are excellent for a genre movie that is exciting in narrative and visual terms.
Like so many other modern pix, this one clearly is inspired by Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets.” Yet it’s a tribute to gifted co-writers Tom Cudworth and Bross that, while situating their raw youth drama on familiar turf, their work also manages to achieve a distinctive identity.
Ray (Brody), Mike (Michael Gallagher) and Butchie (Tony Gillan) have been close friends since their childhood in Bloomfield’s working-class neighborhood. A brief prologue depicts the trio as they ride their bikes, play baseball and experience a most traumatic event: the public arrest of Ray’s dad (Frank Vincent) for illegal gambling.
At 23, Ray hasn’t recovered from that humiliating incident, vowing that it will never happen to him. Working as a shoe salesman, he’s determined to have a slice of the American Dream, “be somebody,” start his own business and provide a good life for his childhood sweetheart, Joanne (Sybil Temshen), whom he intends to marry. Fate, unfortunately, dictates a different course.
Tale dwells on the trio’s difficulties in maintaining their intimate bond as their paths diverge. Uncertain about a career, Mike goes to college while working part time at his father’s bar. Streetwise Butchie, the least ambitious of the three, works as a delivery boy, but he also represents the ultimate loyal friend, one who would sacrifice anything for his buddies. Central drama concerns Ray’s desperate, irresponsible conduct, which leads to his moral decline. The most suave, smooth and adventurous of the three, Ray resorts to risky race track bets, borrowing huge sums from Donny (James E. Moriarty), a local loan shark, which he then hopelessly gambles away in Atlantic City.
Limits of their friendship are put to the test when Mike’s dad has a heart attack and later, when Mike and Joanne spend a night together. In the turbulent, scary climax, which would make Scorsese proud, Donny and his henchmen brutally torture the three amigos until they are unexpectedly interrupted.
Though crammed with melodramatic confrontations, violent explosions of temper and raunchy, wise-guy dialogue, “Nothing to Lose” is not as imitative as Scorsese-influenced pix like “Amongst Friends” and “Federal Hill.” The working-class milieu is drawn with great depth and authenticity; more important, the protagonists’ families and loved ones are well integrated into the proceedings.
Director Bross shapes his material dramatically, considering each incident’s emotional weight. Dialogue is always fluent, occasionally even witty, although the genre’s melodramatic cliches periodically surface, as in some of the male fights. In always keeping up the heat, the filmmakers follow Scorsese (rather than Tarantino), avoiding ironic detachment; pic works best on a visceral level.
Dominating the movie is the charisma of Brody, who registered strongly in Steven Soderbergh’s “King of the Hill” and seems destined to become a star. Endowed with strong camera presence and animalistic physicality, Brody displays the raw, instinctive talent of a young De Niro or Pacino.
Surrounding cast is first-rate, particularly Temshen as Ray’s loving, often abused g.f.; Vincent as Ray’s dad, frustrated over his inability to get closer to his son; Gallagher as the handsome college kid; and Gillan as the eternally loyal Butchie.
Technically sharp and polished, pic is a triumphant piece of filmmaking all the way down the line. Special kudos go to Horacio Marquinez’s whizzing cameras, which make almost every image vivid and charged with tension.
Unmistakably a highlight of the first L.A. Independent fest, “Nothing to Lose” is a rarity even among indies: a personal film that also is an audience pleaser.