Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Drop

Alternate Title:  The Sopranos: Endgame

One sentence synopsis:  The bartender of a dive bar owned by the Russian Mafia must deal with violent lowlifes, battered women, the vengeful ex-owner of the bar, and a dog.

Things Havoc liked: I am fast becoming a massive fan of Tom Hardy, torchbearer for the next iteration of Mad Max, who has been uniformly excellent in recent years in films as diverse as Locke, Inception, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and The Dark Knight Rises (we won't talk about Star Trek Nemesis). I am becoming a fan of Hardy's because of his ability to play all sorts of disparate roles to perfection, from a tightly-wound, soft-spoken, Welsh building engineer in Locke, to the voice-distorted, hulking terrorist Bane in DKR. This time around, Hardy takes a stab at playing a New Jersey tough guy(of sorts), by the name of Bob Saginowski (thus marking the first time I have seen someone play a working-class tough guy in a gangster flick named Bob). Bob is the bartender at Marv's bar, a local dive for the working class patrons of whatever section of blue-collar Jersey this happens to be, lives otherwise alone, and seems to be at least partly... "slow" is perhaps the best word. This is his neighborhood, and he knows it well, and does not seem tremendously interested in much else outside it, and yet rather than turning into some kind of gangster-version of Forest Gump, Hardy plays him like a none-too-bright blue collar guy who simply knows where he is and accepts it. As always, this is a complete departure from Locke or Bane or anything else I've seen him play, and he is mesmorizing throughout, particularly as the background of the character and the things he may actually be good at begin to come to the fore.

But of course, the Drop is not famous for Tom Hardy's appearance, but because of that of James Gandalfini, in his last ever role, where (in a daring departure from his previous body of work), he plays a New Jersey tough guy with a thick accent who swears a lot. I kid, but Gandalfini here was playing to his strengths, while improvising just enough to keep it interesting. His character Marv is not a Tony Soprano analogue at all, save for the accent and location, but a frightened, bitter man, who has lost in life and knows it, and desperately wants to get back what he believes is his. The bar he and Bob work at is called Marv's Bar after all, and once it was his, until a Russian gangster (Michael Aronov) applied the right type of pressure to take over the bar. Though Marv still runs the place, it now functions as a "drop bar", where money from illicit activities is gathered and protected prior to collection by the mafia. Marv resents this interference, as anyone would, and yet the film is not precisely the story of his never-ending quest for vengeance, or what happens to those who cross Tony Soprano, but about the limits of what a guy who thinks himself tough may be when confronted with those who are truly ruthless. The toadying obsequiousness that Gandalfini displays around his bosses, and the bitter anger he offers when they're not around are wonderful to watch, clashing as they do with Bob's more pragmatic approach to everything.

And that's more or less it. The Drop is not a complex film nor a particularly violent one, but a superb exercise in staged tension and subtext, as Bob (and Marv) deal not only with the gangsters in question, but with Nadia (Noomi Rapace, in a much better turn than Prometheus), a local waitress whom Bob meets by chance, and Eric (Rust and Bones' Matthias Schoenaerts), her low-life ex-boyfriend, with whom Bob becomes entangled after he discovers an abandoned puppy in Nadia's trash that once belonged to Eric. The characters stare at one another and say very little, as in the best gangster movie tradition, in dark houses, a dark bar, the dark of night, or the slate grey of an overcast sky. Every situation is allowed to build, carefully amassing tension and building towards inevitable payoffs. The film maintains this measured, gradual approach the entire length, producing one of the more well-crafted thrillers I've seen in quite some time, an impressive feat for first time director Michaƫl Roskam, who has clearly seen his share of crime dramas, and deconstructed what makes them tick quite well.

Things Havoc disliked: Given the tightness that the film maintains around its central characters and story, I am left confused as to the purpose of Detective Torres, played by The Fast and the Furious' John Ortiz. His character is the token cop, a catholic (of course), who keeps tabs on our main character at confessional and who seems to be following the action with reports and briefings and all the usual stuff. Yet nothing really is ever done with this character, as he has practically nothing to do except occasionally show up and exposit information at our characters. I suppose every gangster film must have a cop in it, but it's generally only polite to give him something to do. The main thrust of the film is simply the interaction of Bob and Marv and the low-lifes and damaged people that surround them. The police have nothing to do with that, something confirmed by the end of the film.

Otherwise, all I can really point to is the fact that The Drop, as was probably inevitable for a freshman outing, is a very simple film, perhaps a bit too simple, given the runtime. It's not that it gets boring, far from it, there's just a limit to the horizons a movie that spends this much time on the question of who owns a dog can possibly have. I don't demand that every gangster film I see be the Godfather of course, but there's no end to the wonderful, triple-crossing fun you can have in movies like this, and this film, desiring as it does to avoid all the cliches of the genre, is left with a very plain story. Some may not prefer that.

Final thoughts:   I on the other hand have no problem whatsoever with being given a simple film done well once in a while. Too many directors, authors, actors, get airs about them, that they all must produce Coppolian works of earth-shattering weight and dizzying complexity for anyone to notice them, and that there is no room in their careers for subtlety or craft. Not that a big film is a bad thing, by any means, but there is room in film for a movie like this, a very simple, very effective, very tense thriller, which simply produces a number of characters about which we know little, and then lets us get to know them over the course of self-contained events that make logical sense. The Drop is one such movie, a tightly-crafted, finely-acted, highly effective thriller, about which there is not a vast amount to say, except that I wish all of my first-time directors could produce work of this caliber.

Now if he can avoid making a sophomore film like Under the Skin, we might actually be onto something.

Final Score:  7.5/10

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