Once Upon a Time in America

Once Upon a Time in America ★★★

Early 20th century New York fails to be the sort of fertile landscape that the American West was for Leone in this gangster tale. Initially the stylistic elements seem promising but as things drag on the film fails to establish any interesting characters or themes. The ending wakes you out of your stupor a bit with a plot twist and some creative film making choices but it hardly makes the meandering first 3 HOURS of the movie worthwhile. I definitely do not blame the American distributors for re-cutting this one because it needs some serious editing down.

The movie never gets over the fact that it focuses on dull unlikable characters. Women are portrayed particularly bad here (never a strong point for Leone) including seriously problematic handling of rape. Characters do not need to be necessarily likable but there needs to be some depth or complexity there to create some level of interest. Any complexity here is just a result of some eccentric filmmaking choices that basically amount to very little. I also wouldn't say it's impossible to include rape in a way that adds something meaningful to a film, but how it's handled in this movie does not give that impression at all. What exactly did Leone expect us to think of this guy after these scenes? Because he just comes off as an unforgivably depraved low-life and nothing that happens afterward really changes that impression. This could be an interesting angle for a character study of a morally reprehensible figure, and that would be the more forgiving interpretation of the film, essentially that the main character is driven to drug use and exile due to his damaging choices in life. I'm not sure that's what Leone is really going for here though.

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