I think it’s fair to say that the past few weeks have not been kind to movie lovers, particularly those who aren’t in the arthouse loop. Since Guardians of the Galaxy, the wide releases have gone from bad (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Expendables 3) to worse (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Let’s Be Cops). Leaving aside the summer blockbuster afterbirths, we’ve got dud attempts at serious drama (When the Game Stands Tall, If I Stay) and stuff that makes me wonder why the fuck it was ever made at all (The Identical, Dolphin Tale 2, Atlas Shrugged: Part 3).
I see some potential relief next month, since this year’s batch of October horror releases has some promising entries (Dracula Untold and The Book of Life among them), but the rest of this month looks just plain weird. I have no idea what to make of The Equalizer or The Maze Runner, much less why they’re being released in close proximity to Rosewater and The Good Lie. Oh, and this will also be the month of Tusk, a Kevin Smith movie about a mad scientist who turns an unwilling subject into a walrus. Again, what the fuck?
Don’t get me wrong, the time between blockbuster summer and awards winter is always an awkward one (I fondly think of it as “Craptember”), but this year’s window is so painful and confusing. Lucky we’ve got at least one good movie to come of it.
The Drop opens with a bit of expository voice-over, talking about the New York underworld. Dirty cash is constantly trading hands, you see, and all of that money has to go somewhere. To this end, the mob bosses have taken ownership of several bars throughout the city. Every day, one of these bars is chosen at random to be a drop site, where filthy lucre can be safely deposited until it’s picked up the next day.
Our protagonist is Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy), who works at one of these mob-owned bars, though he makes a clear point of keeping any criminal business at arm’s length. Incidentally, the bar is managed by his Cousin Marv (the late, great James Gandolfini in his last film role), who’s in the process of leaving his shady past behind. Our third lead turns up when Bob finds a pit bull puppy beaten and bloodied in someone’s garbage can. The can belongs to Nadia (Noomi Rapace), who used to be a veterinary tech. Think that’s a coincidence? Of course you don’t.
That last point should give you an idea of how this movie operates. There are many other examples I could name. There’s the detective (John Ortiz) snooping around, asking about a guy who went missing a decade ago. There’s the mysterious creep (Matthias Schoenaertes) who keeps popping up in a suspicious way, claiming to be the owner of the puppy. There are the two guys who rob Cousin Marv’s bar, rehearsing for the night when that bar gets to be the drop site. That isn’t even getting started on what Marv and his mob bosses have planned for when that drop day inevitably comes.
The movie presents us with so many different plotlines, hoping all the while that we’ll be invested enough to see how they pay off. That’s a very tricky gambit, one that could backfire horribly with the slightest misstep. And there are so many reasons why it works here.
First of all, this screenplay was written by Dennis Lehane, here making his feature screenwriting debut by adapting one of his short stories. If the name sounds familiar, he’s the guy who wrote the books that Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island were all based on. Lehane has also written a few episodes for The Wire and Boardwalk Empire. That CV should speak for itself. If anyone knows how to write a superbly taut thriller that can maintain suspense for 100 minutes’ runtime, it’s this guy.
Secondly, there’s the director. Michael Roskam is a relative unknown, largely because this is only his second feature. Though his debut feature was Bullhead in 2011, which earned overwhelming critical praise and a Best Foreign Language Film nomination. I’m sorry to say that I missed out on Bullhead, but his work here is proof enough that Roskam is no one-hit wonder. Between the solid soundtrack and the pitch-perfect editing, Roskam shows a superlative ability to keep the audience waiting for the next surprise (though it helps that he was working with such skilled masters as composer Marco Beltrami and editor Christopher Tellefsen). Granted, the camerawork is a little iffy in places — in particular, the climax has multiple shots in which the camera pans 180 degrees until it’s upside down — but it’s generally effective nonetheless.
Then we have the cast. It’s like every single actor (with one unfortunate exception) in this movie was chosen for their ability to convey homicidal insanity behind a very thin facade of calm. Tom Hardy is a great example. On the one hand, he does genuinely look and act like a well-meaning guy who isn’t very smart or violent. The guy saves a puppy in the first ten minutes, for God’s sake. On the other hand, we all know it’s only a matter of time before our protagonist breaks out some hidden can of whoopass. After all, this is Tom Hardy. No matter what movie he’s in or who he’s playing, you do not fuck with Tom Hardy. Period.
The same could be said of James Gandolfini. The guy could look and act like a big teddy bear, but you could never forget that he was Tony Fucking Soprano. Gandolfini was remarkable for his ability to be soft and paternal, then turn on a dime to act cold and bloodthirsty. It’s especially painful in this context, when we see this old and grey character reminiscing about the days when he was a bona fide gangster. It’s a heartwrenching reminder of what we lost when he died, and a very poignant epitaph for the man himself.
And Noomi Rapace? Come on. We’re talking about Lisbeth Salander here. With the notable exception of Prometheus, Rapace has built her career playing damaged women of exceptional intelligence who could turn seven shades of badass without warning. This is really just a continuation of what Rapace has already done with the Millennium trilogy and (blech) Dead Man Down.
Kudos are also due to Michael Aronov, who appears threatening in such a way that you can never tell if the character is serious or just messing with people. There’s a lot of good suspense from that. We also have Matthias Schoenaertes (previously the lead of the aforementioned Bullhead), who personifies the concept of homicidal psychosis under an eerie calm. Unfortunately, the cast does have a weak link in John Ortiz, who leaves a far less potent impression than his castmates do. Despite all the effort that Ortiz is clearly putting in, I could never quite believe that he was much of any serious threat to the other characters. He’s enough to get the job done, don’t get me wrong, but there was definitely room for a stronger casting choice.
Getting back to the screenplay, I must admit that the plot is masterfully structured. The suspense all hinges on the promise of a massive payoff, and there’s no denying that the myriad plotlines all dovetail beautifully with some extraordinary twists throughout. Alas, the movie is nowhere near as compelling in terms of theme. There are a few messages in there about the unpredictable, dishonest, and irrational tendencies of criminals, as well as some ruminations about isolation and past sins. Unfortunately, while these statements lead to some inspired plot points, the statements themselves are only half-baked retreads of themes we already know from umpteen other crime dramas.
All told, The Drop works as a wonderfully suspenseful crime drama. Even if the movie doesn’t do anything new in terms of theme, the plot is so intricately built and deliberately paced that it’s very satisfying to watch the narrative unfold. The cast — the lead actors in particular — are just going through the motions of what we’ve already seen them do, but the characters are so interesting and portrayed with such talent that it’s still amazing to watch.
I can’t see this film being a serious awards contender (except maybe for Adapted Screenplay), but it’s a worthy palate cleanser between the summer films and the awards season. Definitely give it a watch.