Friday, September 26, 2014

The Drop (2014) Review

Directed by 
Michael R. Roskam


           When the money changes hands among the Chechen mob in New York, the bosses choose to designate a particular bar the site of “the drop,” where the money can be exchanged without surveillance or the threat of violence or retaliation.  Michael R. Roskam’s The Drop is about one of these bars, called Cousin Marv’s.  Drenched in the gritty atmosphere of Brooklyn, Cousin Marv’s is the favored hangout for the blue-collar workers from the shipyard.  To be sure, the bar isn’t entirely untarnished, but like many hangouts and shady characters from Dennis Lehane screenplays, the more that is left unsaid, the better.
            Ironically, The Drop isn’t really about the drop.  Over the course of the film, only two drops take place at Cousin Marv’s and perhaps not surprisingly, both end up going bad.  The first drop takes place in the film’s opening scene, when Cousin Marv (James Gadolfini, in his final performance) and his bartender, Bob Sacamano Saginowski (Tom Hardy) are closing up the bar late one night and encounter two masked bandits who hold up the bar for $5,000.  Problem is, of course, that the money Marv and Bob hand over from the till doesn’t belong to the bar – it is the money that has exchanged hands during the drop that technically belongs to the Chechen mob.  So the next day, the mobsters pay a visit to Cousin Marv and politely inform him that if he cannot come up with the money, he may end up paying more than he ever bargained for.

            Although Gandolfini’s character is at the center of the events in The Drop, the film’s main character is actually Bob, who appears to be a bizarre mixture of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront and 1990s Adam Sandler.  You see, Bob is a cousin of Marv’s and serves as his right-hand man of sorts because he’s, well, kind of stupid and naïve (two qualities good for right-hand men but not traditionally associated with Tom Hardy characters – hold that thought).  Maybe that’s a little harsh, but consider an early scene where Bob finds an abandoned pit bull puppy beat up and left in a dumpster.  He is immediately attached to the dog, but is completely unaware of how to care for a pet – something most five-year-olds could do.  So he enlists the help of Nadia, the woman whose house the dog was left at (Noomi Rapace).  It apparently never occurred to Bob that this mysterious girl could have had anything to do with the dog’s bad shape since, you know, it was abandoned at her house and all, but no matter.
            So you see, Bob is sort of naïve and stupid.  And like most Dennis Lehane protagonists, his background and morality are shady (what a surprise).  He goes to Mass every day where he runs into the local police investigator (John Ortiz) who coincidentally has been assigned to keep a close eye on the robbery at Cousin Marv’s (this is apparently a really small neighborhood).  Of course, we soon see that the robbery wasn’t a random act of theft, but a calculated series of events designed to thwart the Chechen mobster’s hold over Cousin Marv and his bar (MILD SPOILERS AHEAD).  It turns out to no one’s great surprise that Cousin Marv isn’t that friendly of a guy and resents the fact that the mob controls his bar due to past debts he has been unable to pay.  By orchestrating the robbery after the drop, Cousin Marv is only taking the money that is (in his mind) rightfully his.  
            But wait a second.  You’re telling me that Cousin Marv risks his life, Bob’s life and the lives of his two masked lackeys for (wait for it)… only $5,000???  Who decided on that amount of money to steal – Dr. Evil?  Are they in the market for a used Oldsmobile?  I realize this is nitpicking, but it underscores a larger problem with the screenplay’s dramatic conflict between Cousin Marv and the mob: Why would the mob continue to coordinate drops with Cousin Marv if they know he is resentful and shady?  As the opening scene informs us, there are numerous bars the mob could contract with.  There doesn’t seem to be easy discernable reason why the mob has continued to hold on to Marv – a loose cannon at best – unless the Chechens are even more naïve and more stupid than Bob Saginowski.

            Meanwhile, Bob tries his best to be a good adoptive pet owner with the help of Nadia, but one day out of nowhere, the dog’s original owner, Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts) comes back into the picture and demands Bob give him $10,000 or he’ll go to the police to reclaim the dog (forget for a second that any reasonable police force would likely find Eric Deeds neglectful and abusive and keep the dog in Bob’s care).  Eric Deeds’ backstory is murky too; he apparently once killed a guy and dated Nadia (the exact order is a little unclear).  So Bob, straddled with the pressures of the mob, Nadia, poor intelligence, and his upcoming bartending shift on Super Bowl Sunday, has the additional pressure of coming up with the money or else. 
            Perhaps one of the worst things about The Drop is the way in which Lehane’s screenplay abides by the banal logic of Screenwriting 101 and uses the Eric Deeds subplot as nothing more than a diversion away from the main events of the story until . . . bam!  The two stories collide in a Completely Unexpected Moment No One Saw Coming.  Another annoying thing about the screenplay is the ways in which it tries to build intrigue and mystery around Bob’s character and motives: is he a good guy or is he hiding something?  Unfortunately, these questions are answered in exposition by Bob late in the movie – exposition which clarifies events in the film greatly, but at the expense of deflating the audience’s sincere interest in the story.  Put another way: We eventually see that Bob is only an ambiguous and mysterious character because the screenplay deliberately withheld crucial information about him and his past.  It was the screenplay’s manipulative structure that obscured him – not so much that his character was ambiguous and interesting to begin with.  I felt moderately cheated.

            I don’t like to harp on performances too much, but it also must be said that Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace feel miscast here.  It’s not just that neither can carry an authentic-sounding Brooklyn accent.  I said earlier that Hardy feels like an unlikely mix of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (which The Drop unmistakably recalls) and 1990s Adam Sandler – but Bob really shouldn’t be a torn bystander with Catholic guilt or a psychopathic moron with a puppy.  He should be a weak-minded individual with the desire to escape the domineering nature of his cousin, and Hardy instead comes off as too assured and poised for that.  As for Rapace, she feels distant and inconsequential (although her role is admittedly never really fleshed out beyond Obligatory Love Interest.) 

            Throughout this review, I’ve alluded to the fact that Dennis Lehane’s screenplays tend to contain surprising gaps in basic logic and rarely move beyond the most foundational structures of crime narratives (fortunately this film lacks the annoyingly colorful urban side characters of Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone).  The Drop is at least partially redeemed for director Roskam’s austere visual strategy and the fact that the movie wisely steers clear of explosive violence in favor of more gradual character development (I also like that this is one of the only mainstream pro-Pit Bull movies I've ever encountered). But there are too many loose ends and underdeveloped components, left intentionally vague by the screenplay in order to artificially and unfairly inflate viewer interest.  And as for Gandolfini, who gives the best performance in the film and is underutilized, let it be known that probably no one in film history could more perfectly play the role of a shady bar owner named Cousin Marv. 

Rating: 2.5 stars

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