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Last exit to brooklyn poster
Last Exit to Brooklyn
★★★☆☆
Seenmorethanonce Theater cinema Screening room

The American debut of German TV and film director Uli Edel is a pull-no-punches adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s uncompromising underground novel about a working-class section of Brooklyn in the 1950s. The narrative follows a group of striking union workers, drag queens, and neighborhood characters who all lead harsh lives riddled with crime, drugs, and violence of every conceivable kind. Selby (Requiem for a Dream) wrote his novel in a brusque prose style that captured the way people talked in the Red Hook of his youth. The book was banned in several European countries and was the subject of an obscenity trial in the UK when it was released in 1964. There were many attempts to adapt the novel into a film—animator Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, Coonskin) came close in the ‘70s—but it took the international success of Edel’s film about the adolescent drug addict Christiane Felscherinow, Christiane F. (made in 1981 but not released until 1986) to get backing for a film like Last Exit, which hardly seemed like a big money-maker.  

The film features terrific early performances from an impressive cast of up-and-comers like Stephen Baldwin, James Lorinz, Sam Rockwell, and Ricki Lake, and well-established character actors like Burt Young and Jerry Orbach. But the most unforgettable turn comes from Jennifer Jason Leigh as a hooker who lures her tricks to back alleys where they’re subsequently beaten and mugged. With this film, Leigh, already known for taking on unflattering roles that often put her in sexually compromised positions, sealed her reputation as a singular actress willing to go pretty much anywhere on screen without it ever feeling exploitative. She has a rare ability to retain the raw truth and dignity of her characters that Last Exit puts to the test. Much of this picture is difficult to watch, and nearly all of its characters are deeply unsympathetic, yet Edel and screenwriter Desmond Nakano manage to find humanity in each individual. Thus the film comes off as compassionate for the people it depicts and the brutal environment they exist in, without coming anywhere close to romanticizing any of it. 

Though it was only in theaters briefly, and it’s difficult to find in video form, Last Exit to Brooklyn was a hit with critics. It was also Madonna’s favorite film of the year and she coveted Jennifer Jason Leigh’s role so much that she teamed up with Dino De Laurentiis to get Edel’s second American film made with her in the lead—that was the universally panned, over-the-top erotic thriller Body of Evidence (1993). While it’s easy to see why Madonna would be drawn to playing Leigh’s role, it’s impossible to imagine this movie working with any name actress other than Jennifer Jason Leigh in this part. (Madonna was also a contender for Michelle Pfeiffer’s role in this year's The Fabulous Baker Boys, where it’s equally difficult to imagine that film working at all if unbalanced by Madonna’s star power and dubious acting abilities.)

In addition to the amazing cast, Last Exit to Brooklyn boasts phenomenal production design by David Chapman (Four Friends, Dirty Dancing, Mystic Pizza) and a memorable score by Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler (Local Hero, Comfort and Joy, The Princess Bride). 

Twitter Capsule:
Uli Edel's American debut is an uncompromising adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s bleak novel about the violent lives of striking union workers in a working-class section of 1950s Brooklyn. The outstanding cast features Jennifer Jason Leigh in one of her bravest performances.

Directed by Uli Edel
Produced by Bernd Eichinger

Screenplay by Desmond Nakano
Based on the book by Hubert Selby Jr.

With: Stephen Lang, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Burt Young, Peter Dobson, Jerry Orbach, Stephen Baldwin, Jason Andrews, James Lorinz, Sam Rockwell, Maia Danziger, Camille Saviola, Ricki Lake, Cameron Johann, John Costelloe, Christopher Murney, Alexis Arquette, Mark Boone Junior, and Frank Vincent

Cinematography: Stefan Czapsky
Editing: Peter Przygodda
Music: Mark Knopfler

Runtime: 102 min
Release Date: 26 July 1989
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color