Laws of Gravity (1992): Nick Gomez Stunning Debut

A terrifying nihilism, an out-of-control normlessness, mark all of Nick Gomez’s movies. Laws of Gravity, his first and most emotionally effective picture, is sort of a Brooklyn variation of Mean Streets.

Tightly focused and intensely dramatized, it’s a bleak, hard-edged, ultra realistic exploration of the reckless lives of small-time hooligans. Gomez’s down-and out characters are off springs of Mean Streets’ Charlie and Johnny: Like them, they are too anarchic and dumb to get anywhere. They bluster or shout, unable to articulate any discernible emotion or mental activity.

The Shooting Gallery, a New York production company, gave Gomez, a cinematographer, the chance to direct his own screenplay provided that he did it on a $38,000 budget. Out of financial necessity, Gomez turned to his neighborhood streets, where he shot the film in only 12 days. He treated his script as a “blueprint,” inviting the actors to freely improvise on the dialogue.

Set in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint, the film provides an authentic look at a volatile criminal environment and violently haphazard lives. Gomez underlines the characters’ cockiness and foolishness, showing how tragically sad their lives are beneath the macho bravado. With a relentlessly narrow focus, the movie illuminates the instant, endless quarrels that often result in senseless killing. That violence grows out of intimacy resonates throughout the film: In Greenpoint, everyone knows everyone else; no expression of emotion goes without notice.

The movie is personal, if not autobiographical. Like his characters, Gomez was a “knucklehead” who did “a lot of stupid stuff” as a kid. Growing up in an Irish-Italian neighborhood on the fringes of Cambridge, Gomez didn’t attend school from the sixth grade on, and a couple of assault charges put him on probation. “There was a long period when I was kind of crossed-off the list, a goner,” he recalled. However, an interest in music pulled him out of his adolescent tailspin, leading to the formation of a punk-rock band with friends. Eventually, Gomez earned a high-school equivalency diploma and attended SUNY Purchase, a major film school where Hal Hartley and other indie directors studied.

Laws of Gravity is a depressing depiction of modern day Dead End Kids whose worlds consist of stealing, selling, drinking and fighting. Living utterly directionless lives, they rip off cartons from a parked van, lift tape decks from unlocked cars. Its sketchy, fatalistic story revolves around Jimmy and Jon, who pull off petty heists and finally get in a jam over a bag of hot revolvers being fenced by Frankie (Paul Schultze), a volatile street hustler. The title of the film accurately suggests that losers are bound to fall.

Jimmy (Peter Green) acts as a big brother to the wild Jon (Adam Trese). Lean and tattooed, Jimmy has his own problems. He’s on parole but must steal to live. But with a working wife, Denise, the film’s most mature and intelligent character, Jimmy at least has someone to count on. Charged with a crazy energy, Jon is out of control, failing to make his court date on a shoplifting charge, slapping around his girlfriend Celia (Arabella Field). The plot turns on Jon’s arrest after attacking Celia on the street and Jimmy’s quest to bail him out.

The primary plot device stems from an incident in Gomez’ life, though Laws of Gravity was not prompted by any burning desire to comment on the plight of his buddies or to advance any theories on how to escape the hood. Occasionally, the film is softened with comic bit, but nearly every scene degenerates into a verbal argument and physical brawl. A sense of dread pervades, as the film gets more and more intense, marching toward its inevitably tragic conclusion.

Heavily influenced by the urban grit and lingo of Mean Street and the obscene poetry of David Mamet (specifically American Buffalo), Gomez’s film surpasses both his masters in its relentless realism. He depicts lowlifes prone to feverish outbursts, conversing in limited vocabularies that are bizarrely eloquent. Jon tells Jimmy’s no-nonsense wife, Denise: “I’m trying to do what I like to do, trying to live.” And when overextends his guest privileges at their home, the resentful Denise says: “You’re sitting on it. You’re looking at it. You’re drinking it.”

Realism dominates in the images of littered streets, graffiti-tattooed buildings, primed but not repainted cars. The cinema-verite style–Jean De Segonzac’s jittery, hand-held camera and semi-improvised dialogue–gives the film the rough surface and immediacy of a documentary, with its depiction of the drab streets, greasy bars and depressing apartment with painful accuracy. The rap, hip-hop and Hispanic soundtrack echoes the film’s grimy, crumbling nature of American cities in the 1990s.