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Last Exit to Brooklyn
Genre Drama
Year: 1989

Last Exit to Brooklyn has just been released to DVD in South Africa. Was it to commemorate its 30th anniversary, did Stephen Lang's performance in Avatar renew interest in it or was it a mistake? Whatever the case, it gave me a chance to watch this controversial cult movie based on the book by Hubert Selby Jr. The film was going to cause scandal one way or another, with Uli Edel (Der Baader Meinhof Komplex) at the helm as director, after gaining recognition for one of his first films, Christiane F. about the drug scene in Berlin during the '70s. It was a brave move on Edel's part, deciding to shoot on-location near the docks in New York.

The environment is harsh as several people's lives are given the limelight. Tralala (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a ragdoll "prostitute" is forced to make a living, luring men away from the public eye and stealing their money. Her only relief coming in the form of a kind-hearted young marine. Harry (Stephen Lang), a dock worker and second-in-command striker is in a dead-end marriage and starts to question his sexuality, after tapping into the underground transvestite scene. Big Joe (Burt Young), an Italian father discovers his daughter's pregnant and struggles to come to terms with the father of the child. 

The film basically delves below the surface of appearances in Brooklyn and at the docks in 1952. The book Last Exit to Brooklyn was Selby's account of life at the time and its shock factor reveals the antithesis of Pleasantville. While the land of white picket fences and two children began to characterise '50s America, Hollywood started to move into darker territory with Wilder's Sunset Boulevard exposing the not-so-glamourous side of Tinseltown. The affects of the Second World War and Depression still echoed and small pockets of America reeled with unspoken taboos: homosexuality, prostitution, transvestism, alcohol and drug abuse.

Just like sex, religion and politics these "dirty" secrets were not for open discussion at the dinner table, yet festered in the darkness of the night in places like Brooklyn. Last Exit to Brooklyn is definitely not for sensitive viewers and is emotionally-draining for the greater part. It's an ugly depiction of life for the working class... rife with social blemishes including: unwanted pregnancy, gangs, prostitution, infidelity and drugs. On The Waterfront's cold, hard-living conditions are paralleled and explored at greater depth as dock workers strike and angry protestors rebel against authorities.

Last Exit to Brooklyn is not comfortable watching, but it's backed by solid performances, earnest direction and a view of the '50s that counterbalances the surreal nostalgia associated with the age. The themes are handled with great sensitivity and Edel's pensive direction create a thought-provoking adapatation of Last Exit to Brooklyn. In the hands of another director, it may have been too explicit or failed to convey the ugliness. Edel strikes a balance, which makes the heavy content bearable, watchable and engaging as a time capsule.

Some would argue that his bleak vision was too one-sided, but the film would be lost in a sea of bland social commentaries if it hadn't made such a cutting contrast against the Pleasantville phenomenon. Last Exit to Brooklyn is deeply disturbing, thought-provoking yet important as a look under the Welcome doormat.

The bottom line: Heavy.

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