Inside the Hell That Is “The Many Saints of Newark”

Inside the Hell That Is “The Many Saints of Newark”

Inside the Hell That Is The Many Saints of Newark

All of the things that worked in The Sopranos make its prequel a remarkable slog of a film.

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The long-running HBO series The Sopranos often ventured into Hell—or, more narrowly defined, into realms beyond death where things feel bad and very little changes. The Many Saints of Newark, a feature film prequel released this year, begins in Hell, with a snaking shot through a graveyard and, in voiceover, Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), a central character in the original series, explaining how he died in the monotone of a man who has told this story many times before. “I met death on Route 23, not too far from here,” he says. Then we see a young Tony Soprano, in 1967, rushing down a pier in bright sunlight: “That’s my uncle.… He choked me to death.”

The film proceeds into a series of vignettes in the life of Christopher’s father, Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), and of Tony (played as a teenager by Michael Gandolfini, James Gandolfini’s son), whose naive admiration for his uncle, the film implies, puts him on the path to violence. The film leaps from one period to the next with a suddenness that can be disorienting: The Mafia is surprised by the Newark uprising of 1967; then, Christopher narrates, “the ’60s ended. Neil Young gave that speech from the moon,” and the themes of urban disinvestment are for the most part abandoned. Dickie kills a member of his family played by Ray Liotta, and then Liotta reappears four minutes later playing a different member of Dickie’s family. There are three funerals in the film’s two-hour runtime, averaging one funeral per 40 minutes of story. The Many Saints of Newark progresses like a summary of the tragedies in the Moltisanti family, abridged into a rote list.

Part of the challenge of reviewing a reboot of a popular series is the impetus to compare the new entry to the original. This feels like a trap, in part because it’s boring—the least interesting form of criticism draws lines from a column on the left to a column on the right, tallying where they don’t match up, and it’s the first place your mind goes to when watching a new cast of actors mimic the gestures and idioms of familiar characters. This is easy enough to sidestep in a sentence or two—Vera Farmiga as Livia Soprano is pure, glorious camp; almost everyone else is doing Halloween-party Sopranos impressions—but the larger challenge is elsewhere. Discussing the spinoff in terms of the original can reinforce the idea that this connection alone is reason enough for something to exist, that an original work can be deep or beloved enough to make any new entry in the franchise worth consideration.

It’s hard not to make that consideration, even though I think The Many Saints of Newark is a film that doesn’t really need to exist. Written by Sopranos creator David Chase and Lawrence Conner, it feels like an outline for a potentially fascinating season of TV rushed into production as a two-hour film, without enough time to establish why anything in the film matters. The comparisons are easy to trip into as well. The appeal of The Sopranos came from how discerningly it represented the randomness and futility of violence, its characters’ devotion to patterns of self-destruction, their inability or disinclination to escape fate. All of the things that worked in The Sopranos are the very things that make watching The Many Saints of Newark feel like Purgatory.

One factor is the pace, driven forward by Dickie Moltisanti, a sociopath animated by menace and pursuing a string of feuds. Characters in Dickie’s life are introduced, and then are grievously injured or die in ways that seem arbitrary or abrupt and are sometimes darkly funny. Afterward, Dickie reverts to the same posture of unrepentant self-righteousness. It reminded me of a version of Macbeth I once saw at a community theater, adapted and abridged for children: It’s hard to fit that many murders into a short runtime and still have them feel tragic and not slapstick. In Many Saints, narrative arcs that, with more space, might have held some pathos are condensed to the point of absurdity; at one point, Dickie has a warm and passionate reconciliation with his girlfriend, then murders her 10 minutes later, after she reveals that she’s had an affair.

The film’s setting in northern New Jersey in the 1960s and ’70s is another source of its inconsistency. Its first act begins to tell the story of the Newark uprisings of 1967, which started as a protest against a police assault on a taxi driver named John Smith. The riots are used as an origin story for Dickie’s antagonist, Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Junior), a Black small-time criminal with ties to the Mafia. Chase writes wonderfully about families, so it’s disappointing that McBrayer’s story feels thin and generic, even in the domestic scenes. His girlfriend mostly delivers lines of expository dialogue; at one point, she observes that gambling on the numbers is “the only chance Black folks got to get out of this sinkhole city.” The uprising itself is represented in circling shots of incoherence and chaos, with unnamed characters suffering graphic violence at the hands of faceless state forces, soundtracked to a recording of Gil Scott-Heron performing his poem “Your Soul and Mine,” a grim elegy on the theme of urban violence.

Later, after the abrupt time jump into the 1970s, we see McBrayer inspired by a spoken word performance of a piece by the Last Poets to open his own gambling outfit, “the first Black numbers bank in the Central Ward,” and thus attempt to seize from the Mafia a lucrative criminal enterprise targeting Newark’s Black population and run it himself. (The decision sets up a conflict between McBrayer and Dickie that fizzles out in the film’s final act, ending up secondary to internecine Mafia politics.) The contradiction in McBrayer’s motives—between Black liberation and personal enrichment—could have led in interesting directions, a way to explore how self-interest can deform ideology. But his character’s development is handled too quickly and carelessly, and his story lands like a cynical joke.

Once the Sopranos leave Newark for the suburbs, the film follows them and, for the most part, leaves Newark behind. The kind of trouble teenage Tony Soprano gets into is limited to cheating on tests, accepting a stolen stereo, and hijacking an ice-cream truck to give away free ice cream to kids at a park (this really happens). The two stories—the tensions of Newark in the 1970s and the banal violence of the New Jersey suburbs—never really merge. The film’s focus keeps drifting back to the Sopranos in the suburbs, which is an easier story to tell, a springboard for references to the original show and reenactments of the scenes Tony describes to his therapist as an adult. But within the historical frame the film establishes, it’s hard to see the point.

Of course, there are connections to be made between the petty conflicts of a New Jersey suburban enclave and the city these families have left behind. White flight is one expression of the state’s history of systemic racism, particularly through disinvestment in its cities; this is a point the original series occasionally touched on, and it could have been expanded in Many Saints. For these connections to work, however, they need to contain something beyond plot exigency or broad analysis. The stories that Many Saints strings together don’t make a coherent whole, because the film lacks a granular sense of how its themes—the collision of class, race, and crime—are manifested in the lives of its characters. Their decisions are simply set pieces.

It’s the same way with cinematic violence and death, central to both The Many Saints of Newark and The Sopranos. The abruptness of the deaths in Many Saints is not, on its own, a problem—there are many great abrupt film deaths—but it does put into focus how little reason we’ve been given to care about the cast’s fates. Ultimately, all we get to define them are their ends: girlfriends murdered by jealous men, victims of state violence, mobsters who get shot. What we’re left with is nothing more than people trapped in their types, without the agency to escape them.

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