The scenario is familiar: aimless young white guys from a working-class New York neighborhood, caught in a downward spiral of pointless violence. You've seen it in Amongst Friends and Laws of Gravity, and in the granddaddy of the low-budget lowlife genre, Mean Streets. Filmed for a reported $5,000 in 16mm and Hi-8, with electricity heisted from street lampposts, Gravesend is the most primitive of the bunch, but more gratifying than many of its predecessors. It's a notable debut for 22-year-old writer-director Salvatore Stabile, whose precocity has landed him a two-picture deal with DreamWorks.
Stabile's tale focuses on one momentously awful night in the lives of four friends from the rundown Gravesend section of Brooklyn, near Coney Island. Hanging out and making noise in the wood-paneled basement of Ray (Michael Parducci), they are confronted by Ray's exasperated older brother, who soon winds up dead thanks to a supposedly unloaded gun wielded by the hot-tempered Zane (Tony Tucci). Rather than call the police, the boys seek the help of a neighborhood junkie in disposing of the corpse. (Ray was none too fond of his brother, anyway.) Before the night is over, they will participate in a robbery and find themselves saddled with two additional dead bodies.
For the first half, the stronger personalities-Ray and the trigger-happy Zane-dominate the action, and their two buddies tend to fade into the background. But Stabile eventually arrives at key moments for the pot-smoking Chicken (Tom Malloy) and the shy, sexually confused Mikey (Thomas Brandise). Stabile himself narrates the film, blurring the line between fact and fiction in a yarn inspired by people he knew from his neighborhood. The device allows him to interrupt the narrative with little vignettes detailing the pathetic backstories of all four of his main protagonists. By the end, despite the crude comments, macho poses, desperate measures and stupid brawls that have filled the screen, this raw little movie takes on a surprising poignancy.
Stabile debuted Gravesend as a work in progress at the Hamptons Film Festival, where it caught the attention of Toni and Mark Ross, who supplied $60,000 for post-production. Though the look of the film still reflects its fly-by-night origins (cinematographer Joseph Dell'Olio is a retired New York cop), the 35mm blowup is more handsome than you might expect, and the editing by Miranda Devlin and Stabile is sharp and resourceful. Stabile's unknown actors, all making their film debuts, are persuasive, with Tucci the inevitable standout as the psychopathic Zane. ('He wasn't well-liked,' the narrator observes. 'We were his friends, and we didn't like him.')
Gravesend is a small film, and its downbeat tone will likely further limit its audience appeal, even with its 'Oliver Stone Presents' imprimatur. But, whatever its critical and popular fate, this bare-bones drama is already a success, putting Salvatore Stabile in fast company, at high speed.