Saturday, September 13, 2014

In Theaters: THE DROP (2014)

(US/UK - 2014)

Directed by Michael R. Roskam. Written by Dennis Lehane. Cast: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini, Matthias Schoenaerts, John Ortiz, Michael Aranov, Ann Dowd, Elizabeth Rodriguez, James Frecheville, Morgan Spector. (R, 107 mins)

Best-selling novelist Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island) scripted this adaptation of his short story "Animal Rescue" (also the film's working title) and moved the location from his usual haunt of Boston to the kind of blue-collar Brooklyn neighborhood that hasn't changed in decades. THE DROP is one of those low-key crime dramas from the FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE school that focuses on the "working-class stiff" element of the underworld, populated by guys who know guys with names like "Fitz" and "Sully" and barely scrape by as they nickel-and-dime their way through life. The characters in THE DROP have seen better days, and while some have made peace with their past and where it's taken them, others can't move on and do what they can do revisit a time that's never coming back. There's a profound sense of melancholy throughout THE DROP that's made even more poignant by the presence of the late James Gandolfini in his last film. Gandolfini, who died about three months after filming wrapped, isn't the central focus, but his presence--both his character and the actor himself--is felt in nearly every scene. Gandolfini was a distinctive actor who could also convey volumes with just a glance or a facial expression. Of course, he could also bellow like the best of them, and when he delivers the kind of line that a million other actors have delivered but sounds especially awesome when yelled by James Gandolfini ("What the fuck are you talkin' about?"), it's a joy for his fans to see that he went out with a good role in a good film that utilized him in the best possible fashion.  He'll be missed.

THE DROP refers to a "drop bar," a rotating list of mob-owned bars in the Brooklyn area that serve as money drop-off and pickup points. Cousin Marv's is such a bar, and Marv (Gandolfini) still manages the place even though he was muscled out as owner a decade earlier when some Chechan gangsters took over. Now he answers to Chovka (Michael Aranov) and barely scrapes by serving shots to his dwindling number of regulars. His only regular employee is his cousin Bob (Tom Hardy). Bob is a quiet, introverted, church-going loner who shuffles around and only speaks when he absolutely has to. He has a kind heart, which gets him in trouble with Marv when he keeps giving free drinks to an area homeless woman, allowing her just a few hours each day to hang out in a quiet corner of the bar where she doesn't bother anyone. Bob's kindness extends to taking care of an injured, bloodied pit bull puppy he discovers in a trashcan in the yard of waitress Nadia (Noomi Rapace) on his walk home from work one night. The dog belongs to Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), an intimidating neighborhood goon who used to date Nadia. Deeds beat the dog and threw it in Nadia's trash and keeps following Bob and showing up at his house demanding he turn it over to him. Deeds' stalking of Bob coincides with Bob and Marv getting some heat from Chovka after Cousin Marv's is robbed by a couple of masked gunmen who make off with $5000. Chovka wants his money and hasn't ruled out Bob and Marv pulling off an inside job, and Bob is also forced to contend with the skeptical detective (John Ortiz) investigating the robbery.

THE DROP is directed by Belgian filmmaker Michael R. Roskam, making his Hollywood debut. Roskam's arthouse breakthrough came with the brilliant 2011 film BULLHEAD, an Oscar-nominee for Best Foreign Language Film that featured a stunning performance by Schoenaerts, a gifted Belgian actor (he also played a similar Brooklyn tough guy role in this year's little-seen BLOOD TIES) who you can expect to be hearing a lot more from in years to come. Roskam does a terrific job of capturing a seedy side of Brooklyn that you don't see much of onscreen anymore in these days of hipster gentrification. The focus is more on character than action, and while the film isn't quite the mainstream audience alienator that something like, say, KILLING THEM SOFTLY was, it's certainly in that vicinity in terms of style and tone. In many ways, THE DROP feels a bit like something Sidney Lumet might've made in the late '90s or early '00s. It's a small-scale, simple little film that doesn't rely much on style, instead focusing on mood and atmosphere. This is a Brooklyn where homes have been in the family since post-WWII and sales of plastic furniture covers are still strong (and Marv still lives with his doting older sister, played by Ann Dowd). Hardy's performance is a case study in tightly-coiled tension, a time-bomb waiting to go off but doing so in a way that defies expectation. Like the film, Bob plays his cards close to the vest, and while he seems a little slow-witted at times and some even treat him as such, it comes to be seen as a defense mechanism. Bob has a past that he doesn't want to relive--note the calm and matter-of-fact way he deals with the discovery of a severed arm--and lives as solitary a life as possible to hold off the inevitable forces that he fears will eventually pull him back into that world. He never tries to be a hero until he's exhausted every other possible option. In LOCKE, Hardy played a pressured man boxed in by the confines of his car, but in THE DROP, his pressured character is boxed in by his own design. Rapace's Nadia is equally guarded about her own past, which includes Deeds as well as a nasty scar on her neck. They bond through the puppy, whom Nadia names Rocco, but both are shy, reserved, and hesitant to take anything further. Rapace played a somewhat similar role in last year's underappreciated DEAD MAN DOWN, and while she's a fine actress, she seems a bit miscast here, struggling and failing to hide her Swedish accent while Schoenaerts nails an absolutely perfect Brooklyn tone.

THE DROP will likely bore those looking for a gangster shoot-'em-up, and it's the kind of modestly-budgeted studio film that plays more like an indie. It's familiar, but overall, it's a fine film with an almost-throwback mentality to it. Roskam doesn't seek to break new ground in the crime genre and doesn't pretend his is the first film with a reluctant anti-hero pulled back into a life he's spent years trying to flee. While there are fleeting bursts of action and graphic violence, THE DROP is more concerned with being a compelling character piece and on that front, it's a success, anchored by the always-intriguing Hardy with excellent support from Schoenaerts and Gandolfini.

James Gandolfini (1961-2013)

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