Hailed as an uncompromising look at life on the dark side, Last Exit to Brooklyn follows a gang of young hoodlums, a down and out call girl, an alcoholic father, and a low level union official as they attempt to survive in the harsh underbelly of lower class 1950s Brooklyn. Adapted from the cult classic best-selling novel by Hubert Selby Jr., the New York Times calls Last Exit "harrowing" yet "savagely beautiful."
The urban purgatory of Hubert Selby Jr.'s novel Last Exit to Brooklyn
is diligently put on screen in this harrowing 1989 adaptation. This particular 1950s hell is inhabited by a group of people who are tragically divorced from tenderness or connection: a bleached prostitute named Tralala (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a closeted union organizer (Stephen Lang), a transvestite (Alexis Arquette), and a gallery of thugs, drug addicts, goons, and soldiers on leave. Director Uli Edel's approach is straightforward and blunt: these miserable characters go about their paces, caught in downward spirals, with little hope of breaking their patterns. Without a doubt, some of this captures Selby's fist-in-teeth toughness, and there's also an unexpectedly counterintuitive score by Mark Knopfler, high in mood and sadness. But the film doesn't rise to the challenge of Selby's syncopated prose style, and the very talented actors are encouraged to hit some broad notes in attacking the fuhgetaboutit-I'm-from-Brooklyn mode of behavior. Even with that, it's hard to fault Leigh's fearlessness in taking on her brittle, self-destructive character, or deny the haunted ferocity of future Avatar
villain Stephen Lang. Everything feels a little stilted here, which might not be a terrible thing, because a rawer, closer take on Selby's original would be unbearable to watch. --Robert Horton