September 16, 2014

The Drop

It would be impossible to talk about The Drop without revealing some spoilers, so I'm warning you. I'm not going to ruin the ending, necessarily, but I am going to discuss the characters in revealing ways. For those of you who don't want anything spoiled, hear this: The Drop is really worth seeing. Now you can go.

At first, The Drop has a kind of On the Waterfront vibe to it. The main character, a bartender named Bob Saginowski (played by the scruffy, intense-looking Tom Hardy) has echoes of Terry Malloy, the unintellectual but valiant hero of On the Waterfront played by Marlon Brando. In The Drop, Bob Saginowski works at his older cousin Marv's bar. (Marv is played by James Gandolfini, in his final film appearance.) Bob is aware that Marv's place is a front for some Chechen mobsters: it's a frequent money drop-off point. But Bob doesn't question the illegal activities that he passively participates in. He stays focused on keeping his customers' glasses full.

But then two seemingly unconnected events converge upon Bob: the bar is robbed by two masked men (stealing $5000 belonging to the Chechens); and Bob happens upon a puppy (a darling pit bull whose whimper elicited an embarrassing amount of sympathy from me) that's been beaten and tossed into Noomi Rapace's trash can. Bob doesn't know how to take care of a puppy, let alone treat one that has been attacked, but thankfully, Noomi Rapace is there to help clean up the dog's wounds. With her strong yet soft features and nymph-like quality, Rapace is adept at playing the spurned woman who's somehow managed to pull herself out of a hellish situation.

It would be easy to overly--or underly--praise James Gandolfini's performance in this movie. It's sad to think that such an immensely talented actor will no longer grace the screen. And yet, this character is surely not that different from the one he played in The Sopranos. Regardless, he's very good, somehow making a sad, greedy man equally likable and sympathetic. Maybe it's because the last time I saw Gandolfini he was romancing Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said, but I had good feelings about him right up to the end of the movie, despite some of the very bad things he does.

Likewise, it would be easy not to have much to say about Tom Hardy's performance because of the character he plays: a tough, taciturn man who doesn't have much insight about life. And yet, despite the fact that he's no deep thinker, he possesses an innate sense about human behavior. He also possesses a remarkable cool that comes in handy more than once in the course of the film. As seemingly inexpressive as Bob is, Hardy adds so much to him, and a real human being emerges out of his performance.

Here's where I do actually spoil some things. This movie may be somewhat manipulative in that it doesn't stop you from trying to put the dog and the theft together. It turns out that their connection is tenuous at best. It's really not a narrative but a moral connection, or maybe it would be more accurate to say a human connection, between them. From the very beginning we're led to believe that Bob Saginowski is the good guy, the slightly befuddled but morally incorruptible hero who will take down the mob at the end. It's not for nothing that the movie tacitly conjures up that Terry Malloy-On the Waterfront connection. Bob, it turns out, is quite capable of mindless killing, and what's most troubling about him is the fact that he's able to keep that side of himself mentally locked up. In his mind, he's not like the other guys who go around killing people, beating women, beating dogs, abusing the system. We find in Bob a new strain of morally confused protagonists. (And there were moments were I felt just as conflicted about him.)

That's the worst part of it: By the time we learn about Bob's true capabilities, we're already in his corner. The Drop masterfully pulls the rug out from under us (not in a bad way, though) and sets Bob apart from the other evil men in the movie, perhaps most notably his cousin Marv. At first, Marv too seems like a good-natured if slightly crooked man. We soon learn that the robbery was an inside job masterminded by Marv himself, and slowly the evil that lurks inside this man emerges in increasingly chilling detail, until that scene in the car... I won't give it away, but it's a shocker.

In all, The Drop captures your interest with its decidedly grown-up story. It doesn't cater to anybody's idea of what a good or bad hero should be. Some people might feel annoyed by the film's deliberate evasiveness, but for a movie like this, it comes off as refreshingly novel. There are so many movies about once-bad-now-legit guys being forced to complete "one last job" for some inane reason or other. The one-last-job movies have worn out their welcome, and what we need more of are this kind of surprising, intricately woven, well-developed character study. There will never be another On the Waterfront or another Godfather, but a movie like The Drop gives you a marvelously satisfying good time.

With Matthias Schoenaerts (in one of the film's most conflicting--and memorable--performances), John Ortiz, Michael Aronov, and James Frecheville. Directed by Michael Roskam. Written by Dennis Lehane from his novel, Animal Rescue.

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