Few recent films have been as misunderstood as Gotti.
When this film was first released in 2018, it was slammed by critics and it flopped at the box office. On Rotten Tomatoes, it managed a score of 0% from the critics. At the same time, the opening day audience score was 80%. (Over subsequent days, the audience score would drop to 46%.) This disparity was blamed on studio employees inflating the audience score, though I think it’s more likely that, after months of negative press about the film’s troubled productions, critics were already looking forward to slamming the film before they even had a chance to see it. At the same time, the buzz on Gotti was so bad that the opening day audience was made up of a combination of John Travolta die-hards (whoever they may be) and people who were expecting such a trainwreck that all Gotti had to do to surpass their expectations was to occasionally be in focus.
Then again, it could be that some members of the audience understood what I instinctively understood when I first watched Gotti. Gotti is not really a film about John Gotti, the flamboyant New York mob boss who ruled the streets with an iron fist and who eventually ended up dying of cancer in prison. Instead, whether it was the filmmaker’s actual intention or not, Gotti is a film about the audience’s fascination with not only gangsters but also the movies that have been made about them.
It’s true that John Travolta may be playing someone namned John Gotti but the film goes out of its way to remind you that he’s not the real John Gotti. The film is full of archival news footage of the real John Gotti, either laughing it up with reporters or smirking while sitting in a courtroom. Every time that we’re shown footage of the real John Gotti, we’re reminded of the fact that, at not point during the film, does Travolta look anything like John Gotti. Add to that, the real Gotti is always smirking whereas Travolta always looks somewhat grim. At the time this film came out, many claimed that this was evidence of lazy filmmaking but I viewed it as being a Brechtian distancing device. Whenever the real Gotti makes an appearance, we’re reminded that we’re just watching a movie and then we’re encouraged to ask ourselves why we would want to watch a movie about such a disreputable figure.
The movie opens with John Travolta standing next to the Brooklyn Bridge and speaking directly to the camera. Though Travolta is meant to be speaking to us as John Gotti, the sight of him standing near a bridge in New York will automatically remind some viewers of a previous Travolta film, Saturday Night Fever. The character that Travolta played in Saturday Night Fever, Tony Manero, has come to epitomize New York in the 70s. The film suggests that, in much the same way, Gotti epitomized New York in the 80s and 90s. Gotti, the film is saying, is as much of an icon of the popular imagination as Tony Manero dancing in a white suit.
Why is Gotti speaking directly to us in that scene? It may seem like a framing device until, a few minutes later, we see a bald and sickly Gotti in a prison meeting room, telling his life story to his son, John, Jr. (Spencer LoFranco). Gotti talking in prison is then established as the narrative’s other framing device. So, why was Gotti speaking to us on the bridge and why did he look so healthy and have a full of head of hair when the film has made it clear that the newly bald Gotti is going to die in prison? When I first saw the film, my initial thought was that the Gotti who speaks directly to the audience was meant to be a ghost. But then it occurred to me that he’s actually not meant to be John Gotti at all. Instead, the Gotti who talks to us on the bridge is meant to be our popular conception of what gangsters like John Gotti as like. He’s what we imagine gangsters to be — i.e., tough-talking, well-dressed, and played by an iconic actor. As such, the film’s narration is not being provided by John Gotti. Instead, it’s being provided by the person that we imagine someone like Gotti to have been.
Is the imprisoned Gotti meant to be the real Gotti? Perhaps. However, it’s hard not to notice that, over the course of the film, Gotti’s son never ages. Though several decades pass, Gotti’s son always looks like he’s in his mid-twenties. When he visits his father in prison and talks about having teenage children of his own, it feels odd because he barely looks old enough to be out of high school. That may seem like lazy filmmaking but again, I would argue that this is a distancing device. It’s a reminder that we’re not watching reality. Instead, we’re choosing to watch actors pretending to be gangsters.
Once you accept that Gotti is a film not about John Gotti but instead about those of us in the audience who are watching, the film makes a lot more sense. The film’s cliches about life in the Mafia are revealed to be not so much the result of an uninspired script as they’re an homage to American folklore. Of course, there’s going to be a scene where Gotti tells his children never to rat on their friends. Of course, there’s going to be random shootings and burly men demanding respect. This is a gangster movie, after all. By populating the cast with people who you normally wouldn’t expect to see playing members of the Mafia — Stacy Keach, Chris Mulkey, Pruitt Taylor Vince — Gotti continually reminds you that you’re watching a movie. The real mafia isn’t like this, Gotti is saying, but the mafia of the popular imagination is. Why are we horrified by real-life crime and yet we flock to movies that claim to recreate it for our entertainment? This is the issue at the heart of Gotti.
Gotti’s flaws are there to remind us that we’re just watching a movie. They’re also there to make us wonder why we’re watching that particular movie. Gotti asks us why audience idolize killers like John Gotti. Why do we turn them into folk heroes? Is it because we imagine them to be characters in films as opposed to actual human beings? Whether or not one feels that the film succeeded in its goal, this is an offer that you cannot refuse.
Previous Offers You Can’t (or Can) Refuse:
- The Public Enemy
- Scarface (1932)
- The Purple Gang
- The Gang That Could’t Shoot Straight
- The Happening
- King of the Roaring Twenties: The Story of Arnold Rothstein
- The Roaring Twenties
- Force of Evil
- Rob the Mob
- Gambling House
- Race Street
- Racket Girls
- Bugsy Malone
- Love Me or Leave Me
- Murder, Inc.
- The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
- Scarface (1983)
- The Untouchables
- Carlito’s Way
- Carlito’s Way: Rise To Power