Carry the Water: The Burden of Addiction in Abel Ferrara’s The Funeral

Universal Pictures

Her first line in the film isn’t even a line, it’s a look. She’s sitting at a table in her kitchen, smoking a cigarette, considering her husband, Ray (Christopher Walken). After a minute, Ray looks back. She’s Jean, played by Annabella Sciorra in a career moment, and she’s married to the boss of an organized crime family. Among a wealth of other things, her look says she knows Ray is a man of violence engaged in violent deeds and more, that he’s going to die violently, widowing her and orphaning their two boys. Later, when she takes toy guns away from her boys she asks nobody who it was that got them guns as toys in the first place. Ray did, of course, but she let it happen so, in every way that matters, she did too. Her look says she’s made compromises, decisions good and mostly bad, and that it’s not Ray’s fault he’s Ray, but rather her fault for forgiving him. 

At first glance Abel Ferrara’s The Funeral would seem another in a line of venerable ‘90s gangster flicks: Goodfellas, Casino, Carlito’s Way, A Bronx Tale, Mad Dog and Glory, State of Grace, The Godfather III, Miller’s Crossing, Bugsy—perhaps a follow-up to his own Christopher Walken-starring King of New York. Though it does carry the hallmarks of Ferrara’s films—or, rather, the single throughline of how addiction in its manifold incarnations takes over a person, becomes the person he is, the thing he most ardently desires, the force that brings him the most terror, his shame and his strength however illusory—The Funeral is different because it’s centered on the toll addiction takes on the people who love the addict, who may themselves be addicted to the pain of their love.

The Funeral opens with the body of Ray’s youngest brother Johnny (Vincent Gallo), brought into Ray’s living room, done up in a coffin to lie in state for a few days until he can be put in the ground. “He looks good,” Ray says to the undertakers as they leave. “We’ll be back tomorrow to touch him up,” they say. That’s when Ray notices Jean looking at him. Middle brother Chez (Chris Penn) arrives late and kneels next to Johnny’s corpse. He’s quiet for a while, has his young son pay respects to his uncle, then, overcome, he screams, punches his dead brother because his grief is only expressible through rage and violence. Like Walter Hill, Ferrara is a poet of the impotence, the pathos, the zero sum game of socially-acceptable expressions of masculinity. Later, Ferrara will locate Chez as an object lesson in the horror of male sexual jealousy, of domestic battery, of how the only way this can end for a man without tools is to take up tools in the expression of his brokenness. Chez is capable of great kindness, in moments he’s even gentle, but we know he’s a monster.

Ferrara takes care to show how each of the brothers got to be this way. Ray, as a child in Italy, is coerced into assassinating a man tied to a chair and tortured already nearly to death. Chez is a bramble of suppressed memories and inexpressible sadness. Johnny? Johnny attends an underground Communist meeting where he’s radicalized by the idea that capitalism is a criminal enterprise. Watch the interplay of emotions across his face as his heart opens and he develops a fatal empathy for the plight of others. I thought about the long, unwavering close-up held of Nicole Kidman’s face in Jonathan Glazer’s Birth as we witness the moment her character decides to believe that her husband has been reincarnated as a small boy. Ferrara captures the moment of transformation or, more, what is it? The moment the nightmare flees and the dreamer awakes.

There’s a connection between Nicholas St. John’s beautiful screenplay and John Keats’ “consummation sublime.” I only think of this because The Funeral references St. Agnes in a profoundly unsettling scene. From Keats’ ode “The Eve of St. Agnes,” here’s the stanza where his heroine, the virginal-no-more Madeline, awakes from her stupor to find herself ravished by a lover/rapist, Porphyro, seducing her in what she thought was a dream:

 Tis dark: quick pattereth the flaw-blown sleet:
“This is no dream, my bride, my Madeline!”
‘Tis dark: the iced gusts still rave and beat:
“No dream, alas! alas! and woe is mine!
Porphyro will leave me here to fade and pine.—
Cruel! what traitor could thee hither bring?
I curse not, for my heart is lost in thine,
Though thou forsakest a deceived thing;—
A dove forlorn and lost with sick unpruned wing.”

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Forty-five minutes into The Funeral, mob wife Jean explains to her sister-in-law, mob widow Helen, why she keeps a statue of St. Agnes in her bedroom. St. Agnes was 12 when she turned down the advances of a powerful man and was beheaded for her refusal. “She’s the patron saint of purity,” Jean says. “You pray to her?” Helen asks. “No, she’s just there to remind me of what happens when you say no.” With what we know now of what happened to Sciorra in Hollywood, and of what we’ve witnessed of her courage in coming forward with the explicit details of her assault, this line and its delivery takes on an almost unbearable weight of metatext. Like so many things that seem like prophecy in perfectly-observed art, it’s not prophecy so much as wisdom. History doesn’t repeat itself because history is a continuous thread. We’ve never gotten better or worse, we’ve always been exactly the same. I think of our current window of awareness as just that, a window we open just briefly to look upon a night that has always been there, regardless of whether we look at it or not. Within the walls of the film, Jean’s speech to Helen is her statement of ownership of her part in this limitless parade of useless atrocity. Helen says she’ll never be able to sleep, and Jean says “then just lie there…like Johnny.” Ferrara cuts from there to Ray’s hands, held in an aspect of prayer over Johnny’s corpse as he talks to his little brother. He unbuttons Johnny’s shirt and puts his hands over Johnny’s heart. He asks him questions that Johnny can’t answer. The Funeral doesn’t have any answers for anyone.

In Keats’ poem, the moment after consummation is steeped in self-loathing and, accordingly, The Funeral is a series of climaxes followed fast by despair. The instant after that first bite of the apple and all of Paradise has fled. Chez and Johnny at a whorehouse—Johnny has chosen an elderly woman as his companion for a viewing of an 8mm stag film but Chez sneaks off with a girl who is obviously underage. He stops himself (there’s good in Chez, see?) and tells her that it’s not right. She persists and, inflamed sexually but also offended that his attempt to do the right thing is being frustrated, Chez rapes her violently against a wall. When he goes home to his wife Clara (Isabella Rossellini), in his shame, to quiet her questions, he rapes her, too. They’re very different rapes in terms of literal violence and circumstance, to be sure, but they’re equally abhorrent; equally destructive for the victims of Chez’s absolute hatred of himself and his inability to ask for and accept love. He tells her how he hates how she thinks of him but we know it’s Chez thinking those thoughts. If we could hear what’s inside his head, it would just be the drone of bees and his screams as a child who was too afraid to look at his mother’s body lying in state in his own childhood’s living room.

Ray thinks his sometimes business partner Gaspare (Benicio Del Toro), unctuous and cocksure, is responsible for Johnny’s death…but he’s not. The problem is, Ray’s already had his goons abduct Gaspare and worse than that, Ray has subsequently threatened Gaspare with an axe. He knows there’s no coming back from this. “When I’m dead, I’m gonna roast in hell, I believe that,” Ray says. He says it a couple of times, in fact. I think he does believe it. Gaspare’s fate mirrors Johnny’s fate in that it might be a case of mistaken identity and it’s certainly a case of disproportionate response fueled by some notion of injured pride. When Johnny’s real murderer is found and Ray spends his vengeance on him, the aftermath feels…pathetic. The moments after consummation are reserved for disgust and self-loathing. The sex in The Funeral is vile and transactional and the post-climaxes are to a one anticlimactic. The violence is married to the sex and is, likewise, vile and transactional. Through all of it we see these brothers, Ray and Chez and even Johnny, trying to find something edifying in their acts but they can’t. And in the performance of futile and ugly acts, the emptiness that drives them gets hungrier.

The Funeral uses its flashback structure as a means by which to tell how all the fleeting events of several lifetimes have led these fools to their dusty deaths. Jean says at one point that Chez is insane because the same blood that ran in the brothers’ sociopathic father runs in them and it’ll end one day with Chez splashing his brains on the wall, just like dear old dad. Chez is the expressionistic center of the film’s thesis on broken masculinity and Jean is the film’s primatologist or, closer to the point, the monologuist who closes Shakespeare’s tragedies: the highest ranking survivor left to, Ishmael-like, tell the tale of the terrible hubris that’s led these patriarchs to this ignoble, even pathetic end. Chez’s moment of transformation comes at the end when, in a series of looks, Ferrara captures Chez regarding the sad corpse of some guy who made the mistake of getting his blood up against the wrong person right before digging a shallow grave for him under some bridge somewhere. It’s the same look that Chez, earlier, has given an open straight razor he balances on the edge of his bathtub. It’s during these contemplative passages with Chez, eyes wet and hands shaky, that The Funeral flashes to the episodes in Chez’s life that have led to his excruciating disappointment with himself. Words can’t quite capture how good Chris Penn is in this film. That Annabella Sciorra is at least equal if not better is testament to her empathy, and to Ferrara’s faith in his actors and this script. In a conclusion that unfolds with the horrible inexorability of an icy slide down a mountain road, Chez finally lets all the pain he’s been holding inside of him…out.

The Funeral is knotty as fuck. Follow one whorl to find a treatise on capitalism versus progressivism and the intolerance of the system for any prospect that threatens its existence. Follow another to find an excavation of the things that define men as dangerous animals held only barely, and then only briefly, in check behind a thin scrim of civilization. It’s an elegant piece about romantic storylines and their toxicity when used as templates for interpersonal relationships; and a caustic excoriation of a culture that makes heroes and saints of the violent and their victims.

Late in the film, Jean tells Helen that they’ve both fallen for this romantic image of the outlaw rogue, Bonnie & Clyde and John Dillinger & Billie Frechette and all that jazz-age jazz. They’ve been sold a lie because their husbands are lowlifes, thugs, criminals: “They’re criminals because they’ve never risen above their heartless, illiterate upbringing and there’s nothing, absolutely nothing romantic about it.” Sciorra makes me cry every time she opens her mouth in The Funeral, so immense is the suffering she’s enduring because of her knowledge. She’s Cassandra if Cassandra were married to Agamemnon instead of his prize for slaughtering her people. She knows everything and it doesn’t make one bloody difference in how things turn out. I mean that Jean is Cassandra, but I kind of mean that Sciorra is Cassandra, too. I can’t really parse the difference anymore. 

Johnny, on the last day of his life, is catching an afternoon revival of Archie Mayo’s The Petrified Forest. In it, Humphrey Bogart plays Duke, a romanticized bad guy on the run who takes a diner-full of people, including waitress Gabrielle (Bette Davis), hostage. It’s the story of a woman imprisoned economically, socially, and then literally by a series of men. In the end, it’s a man’s sacrifice that frees her. 

The last string to follow here into the labyrinth of The Funeral is how at its heart—with all the noise around Chez’s explosive decompression—it’s Jean’s movie. Jean represents the idea of how women are imprisoned by men and it’s only through the agency of men that they can be freed. I don’t mean that they need permission, I mean that they need not to be murdered for the temerity of desiring emancipation. Jean threatens to leave Ray, but before she can Ray is murdered as Jean knew he would be. Then Chez swallows a pistol as Jean knew he would. Clara tries to get her husband to stop but Chez shakes his head: “And live without my brothers?” And then he’s gone. Jean’s free now. She’s free. She’s free. She’s free. And the price was just all this despair and self-loathing.