‘The Many Saints Of Newark’ Is Both Confounding And Exhilarating

From the film’s marketing, you may be surprised to learn that Michael Gandolfini’s young Tony Soprano doesn’t show up in The Many Saints Of Newark until about halfway through the movie. (Also, it should be noted: Gandolfini is electric. When he does finally show up, the film hits a whole new higher gear.) Look, it’s completely understandable why Tony Soprano would be the marketing’s focus. People are interested in this character and seeing more of Tony, for the first time in 14 years, sounds pretty exciting. But I do worry people might be disappointed when they realize Tony is not the main character, based only on “that’s what they were led to believe.” Let it be known to anyone reading this: The Many Saints of Newark is not a Tony Soprano origin story. Though, it’s not completely disingenuous to label it that way because there are many events that happen in this movie that no doubt influence the future Tony. But, here, mostly, Tony is an observer. My point is I’d hate for anyone to dismiss this movie for that reason alone. Because there’s a lot going on in The Many Saints of Newark – a movie I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since I saw it a few weeks ago.

I assume, if you’re reading this, you are a fan of a television show that was created by David Chase called The Sopranos, which ran on HBO from 1999 until 2007. Now, remember how some episodes would end and your initial reaction would be, “Wait, that’s it?.” Like, no one got “whacked” that week, so, initially, it didn’t seem like an important episode. Then, as time passed, that episode became one you think about often? Here’s an example: all the Kevin Finnerty episodes from the final season. At the time, I felt impatient with them. it’s the last season, why is this show using so much time exploring what Tony is dreaming while he’s in a coma? Well, now, I think about those episodes a lot. Maybe, now, more than any other arc on the show. But it took me some time to get there. There are no coma dreams in The Many Saints of Newark, but this is how I felt when it initially ended and how I keep coming back to it, now, a few weeks after I saw it.

(The “too long: didn’t read” summary of that previous paragraph is, “Even though there’s a lot of anticipation, don’t be too quick to rush to judgment on this one.”)

The actual main character in The Many Saints of Newark is Dickie Moltisanti (played by Alessandro Nivola). As you can probably tell from that last name, yes, this is Christopher’s father, who is mentioned a few times during the series run, but we don’t know that much about him. The first half of The Many Saints of Newark takes place in 1967 and focuses on Dickie’s relationship with his terrible father, Hollywood Dick (Ray Liotta), and his relationship with Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), who is on Dickie’s mob payroll as a sort of enforcer and collector within the Black community. Later, set against the backdrop of the Newark riots, Harold decides this isn’t the life for him anymore and, with the help of some money from Dickie, decides to leave town.

The film jumps five years into the future. Dickie is struggling between being a new father (yeah, he has a son named Christopher) and, well, doing a lot of terrible things. And, yes, that might sound a lot like the premise of what we saw Tony go through during the series, but that was nuanced over the course of 86 episodes. Here, Dickie’s arc needs to be wrapped up in about two hours – spanning over five years. Just the nature of this being a movie that covers so much time doesn’t allow us to really get to know Dickie the way we knew Tony. And there’s really no way around that. There are basically two seasons worth – what, in the series, would have been basically 26 episodes – of events that happen during this one movie. So the difference is, during the series we saw Tony do some genuinely nice things. In this film, we more just hear about how Dickie does nice things.

But it’s here during this back-half of the film that things really start moving. And a big reason for that is the relationship between Dickie and Tony. Michael Gandolfini is truly remarkable as Tony. He’s perfected so many of his father’s mannerisms that it’s impossible not to be transfixed. And Michael Gandolfini plays Tony as, basically, just a big kid, having some fun, who is enamored with his uncle Dickie. And Dickie loves Tony, to the point he starts to realize his influence on him is ultimately a bad thing. Meanwhile, Harold has moved back to Newark and wants a piece of the action for himself without the oversight of Dickie and his crew – which sets off an all-out war between Dickie and Harold. (If you’re wondering, hey, this sounds like enough plot for a full series, you would be correct. There’s a lot happening in The Many Saints of Newark.)

I do wonder how this will play to people who have never seen the series. Or if those people just won’t even try to dig in here. But for fans of the series, while watching, it really does turn into the Leonardo DiCaprio pointing meme, only this happens about 20 times. Almost every character is in this movie. But other than Tony, and Tony’s mother, Livia (Vera Farmiga, who is really going for it here), most of these characters we knew from the show serve peripheral purposes. (Even Jon Bernthal’s Johnny Boy Soprano isn’t in the movie quite as much as you might think. Though, every time Cory Stoll’s Uncle Junior and John Magaro’s Silvio are on screen I found myself delighted.)

Going back to the opening of this where I warned about rushing to judgment – part of that comes from the fact that so few of the plot points introduced during this movie get resolved. A lot of things are just not wrapped up. (Yes, this is a movie that, frankly, “just ends” and that doesn’t happen much anymore.) There are probably a couple of reasons for this. There are talks of continuing this story into a series, which seems pretty likely at this point. It’s now all set up and most everyone involved seems excited about the prospect of doing that. But, also, The Sopranos was a show that never wrapped anything up into a tidy bow. (People are still asking what happened to the two Russians from the “Pine Barrens” episode.) And that’s why I keep thinking about this movie. I like that everything doesn’t get wrapped up at the end. I like wondering what happened with certain plot threads. But like some of the best episodes of the series, I needed a little bit of time to realize that.

‘The Many Saints of Newark’ opens October 1 in theaters and streams via HBO Max. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.