Friday, September 12, 2014

The Drop: A masterpiece of tension

The Drop (2014) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated R, for profanity and strong violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.12.14

Getting close to two decades ago, Alec Baldwin starred in an adaptation of Heaven’s Prisoners, second in James Lee Burke’s atmosphere-laden series of Dave Robicheaux novels. The film is just this side of brilliant, with director Phil Joanou and scripters Harley Peyton and Scott Frank unerringly catching the rhythm and cadence of Burke’s prose, while Baldwin delivers what remains one of his best-ever performances as the recovering alcoholic, ex-New Orleans cop struggling to endure as he gets pulled into a particularly seamy investigation.

When Bob (Tom Hardy) reluctantly agrees to take care of the abandoned puppy he found a
few days earlier, Nadia (Noomi Rapace) agrees to help him shop for all the essentials. As
is the case with so many other aspects of Bob's life, he simply has no idea how to assume
this new responsibility.
It remains one of my all-time favorite book-to-film translations, in great part because Joanou, Peyton and Frank get Burke just right.

Despite this, the film was dead on arrival, dumped unloved when its studio of origin went bankrupt. As Baldwin was one of the executive producers, I’ve no doubt he hoped to turn Robicheaux into a franchise. Not in the cards, alas. All these years later, I still imagine What Might Have Been.

Turning a noir crime thriller into a film is tremendously difficult, particularly when dealing with a writer whose poetic prose evokes so many striking images. Many filmmakers have tried; most have failed. Director Steven Soderbergh also got it right, with his handling of Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight. Scott Frank wrote that script, as well.

All of which brings us to The Drop, which joins Heaven’s Prisoners on its lofty perch in my cinematic memory. This is an impeccable noir-story-to-film translation, thanks in great part to the fact that Dennis Lehane adapted it from his own short story, “Animal Rescue” (which, just in passing, would have been a better title for this film, as well).

Lehane apparently liked re-visiting this scenario so much that he expanded the story into a novel, also titled The Drop. But the original story remains readily available via the Internet, and I encourage you to seek it out ... but — promise, now! — only after seeing this film.

Bringing Lehane’s books to the big screen has become something of a cottage franchise; even more impressive is the fact that everybody involved has done such good work. The list is striking: Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone and Shutter Island. But this is the first one Lehane scripted himself, which makes it a standout. And he’s a natural, which is no surprise, given his writing chops (also displayed on several scripts for gritty TV shows such as The Wire and Boardwalk Empire).

His hard-edged dialogue sounds just right; we sense its authenticity even though we’re likely unfamiliar with the archetypes populating this story. Not unless we’re born and bred on the mean, cloistered parish streets of a major metropolis (Boston’s Dorchester in the original short story, inexplicably moved to Brooklyn here). These are people we don’t want to know, neighborhoods we don’t want to inhabit after dark. Probably not in the daytime, either.

But film is a collaborative art; many fine scripts have been destroyed after leaving their creators’ hands. Not the case here: Up-and-coming Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam — who earned a Best Foreign Film Oscar nod for 2011’s Bullhead — has done a masterful job with this tense, brooding story. (Isn’t it interesting, just in passing, that some of the best recent adaptations of American noir novels have been helmed by foreign directors?)

The casting here also is impeccable. The momentary pang we experience, seeing James Gandolfini on the screen for the final time, is eased by the quick realization that the richly expressive actor has gifted us with another deftly nuanced performance.

Good as Gandolfini is, though, this film is owned by Tom Hardy: a rising character actor who hit our radar in Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” and has since made equally strong impressions in the remake of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and last year’s one-hander, Locke. Hardy’s performance here is a masterpiece of mournful subtlety.

Bob Saginowski (Hardy) is a quietly lonely guy: not really living, but merely going through the motions of existing somewhere along society’s fringes. We get a sense that Bob never has been loved by a woman, never has enjoyed the company of friends on a rowdy Friday night. He makes occasional attempts at thoughtful gestures, as if unfamiliar with such behavior ... perhaps never having been taught the social graces by parents who died before their time.

Lots of folks die before their time, in such neighborhoods; cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis unerringly captures the bleak, grimy despair that drifts through the air, much like the slivers of paint peeling from the forlorn apartments. Bob lives alone in the house where he grew up, maintaining appearances despite the certain knowledge that he’ll never entertain any visitors.

All this, we extract from Hardy’s brooding, thoughtful gaze, the set of his body, and from Roskam’s economical tableaus. Just as richly distinctive as Lehane’s prose.

Bob tends bar for his cousin Marv (Gandolfini), a forlorn misfit in his own right. Marv still laments the day, years ago, when he lost ownership control of his bar to the Chechen mobsters who now control the neighborhood. They’re led by Chovka (Michael Aronov), a calmly scary fellow one definitely shouldn’t cross.

No surprise, then, that Marv and Bob are less than pleased when their bar is robbed, late one night, by a couple of young thugs with more moxie than sense. They neither know nor care that Chechens “own” this bar, and its nightly take.

Chovka isn’t pleased by this turn of events, and he holds Marv and Bob responsible for the missing $5,000. Definitely unfair, but that’s life. Somehow, the amateur stick-up artists must be found, the money returned.

It’s not just the theft itself; Marv’s reputation is on the line. His bar is one of many occasionally used as money-laundering “drops” for Brooklyn crime bosses needing temporary banks for their ill-gotten gains. Pubs are chosen randomly; payoffs and skimmed money are deposited clandestinely throughout the given evening, later carted away concealed in empty beer barrels. It’s an honor to become the designated drop, but also a precarious responsibility.

Although Bob is concerned — only a fool wouldn’t be — his mind is on other matters. Late one night, taking a lonely walk along the neighborhood streets, he hears an odd sound; investigating, he finds a wounded puppy dumped in a trash can. Something stirs within him; we see the transformation on Hardy’s face. This man has a soft spot for defenseless creatures.

The trash can belongs to Nadia (Noomi Rapace, still easily recognized as the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), whose wary eyes regard Bob with suspicion. She seems genuinely surprised by the dog, perhaps amused by Bob’s utter helplessness in the face of this unexpected situation.

It takes a few days, but the puppy eventually winds up at Bob’s house. As does Nadia, after a fashion, as something of a dog-watcher during Bob’s shifts at the bar. But this isn’t a relationship: more of an uneasy truce between two melancholy people who long ago gave up expecting much in the way of kindness.

Bob gets used to having the puppy around. Gets accustomed to Nadia, as well. Then, one day, a shadowy presence hovering at the fringes of Bob’s world lands and identifies himself: Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts, softly chilling), a malignant thug with dangerous eyes who claims ownership of the puppy.

“You beat him,” Bob objects, humbly.

Eric couldn’t care less. He wants the dog, simply because Bob has him, and Eric clearly exists solely to bring pain into people’s lives. Bob nonetheless holds his ground, sends Eric on his way. And so begins a campaign of quiet terror, as Bob finds himself in the crosshairs of a malevolent force whose next move can’t be predicted. Except that it’ll be bad.

Elsewhere, street-wise Detective Torres (John Ortiz) has been sniffing around the details of the bar robbery, convinced that Marv and Bob know more than they’re telling. Ortiz has the genial, rumpled affectation of Peter Falk’s Columbo: a smiling investigator who curries friendship but misses nothing. Torres recognizes Bob from daily Mass at the old neighborhood parish church. Torres laments its pending closure: one of many incidental details that lend such weight and complexity to these characters.

Mostly, though, these various events fester like a wound turning septic; the mounting atmosphere of dread is palpable, soon all-consuming. This is, without question, the most nervous movie you’ve experienced in awhile. We grow terrified about consequences to come, worried about numerous potential victims: the puppy, Nadia and particularly poor Bob, so clearly overwhelmed by everything.

At the same time, Lehane injects sporadic notes of humor, albeit of the gallows variety. We chuckle, on occasion ... but it’s anxious laughter.

Hardy’s performance is a study in subtle shading. Bob’s non-sequitur efforts at conversation make us wonder if perhaps he’s a bit slow, a bit simple. Sure, he navigates the world after a fashion, but he seems utterly powerless in the face of ordinary things like a dog’s presence. He has no idea how to talk to Nadia; she, in turn, is utterly baffled by his inability to connect with anything.

And yet Bob is grounded in some important ways, starting with his genuine respect for the danger represented by, say, Chovka and his associates. Bob does his best to skirt anything remotely approaching confrontation. He really just wants to tend bar; it’s a familiar routine with which he’s comfortable.

Rapace makes an equally strong impression as Nadia, a woman forced by circumstance to be tougher than she’d prefer, who undoubtedly fears one day turning into an elderly barfly like Millie, who occupies the same stool at Marv’s place every night. Rapace conveys the beaten-down bearing that Lehane’s short story nails with a few crisp sentences: “She had a tiny moon of a face ... and small, heart-pendant eyes. Shoulders that didn’t cut so much as dissolve at the arms.”

This is a rigorously controlled film, everything orchestrated to perfection under Roskam’s detail-oriented guidance. There’s nary a flaw to be seen, unless one hasn’t a fondness for slow-burn thrillers that develop more from clipped conversation and latent menace, than overtly brutal and explosive acts. Truly dangerous, frightening psychopaths don’t need to be noisy or ostentatiously violent; their power derives from what they’re about to do.

And yet, this film’s many fine qualities notwithstanding, I fear that it’s destined to share the same fate as Heaven’s Prisoners: a modest, inadequately promoted indie production almost certain to be ignored by mainstream viewers.

So see it quickly, before diminishing box-office returns prompt its quick removal from theater screens. Because, no question, this is one of the year’s best.

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