Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Not a Contender: The Drop

James Gandolfini and Tom Hardy in The Drop

When The Godfather opened in 1972, Pauline Kael wrote of the terrifying light it shed on the dark underbelly of American society. Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) had got it wrong, she remarked—Terry Malloy didn’t clean up the docks, after all. The mob had only gone into hibernation, gestating into the new and more virulent mutation that Coppola unleashed two decades later. But though The Godfather and Kazan’s film each concerned itself with organized crime, their characters and setting couldn’t differ more. Coppola treated his gangsters as patrician nobility; Kazan’s were street toughs and longshoremen. Michael Roskam’s new picture, The Drop, draws a closer connection, conjuring up Kazan’s milieu on the gritty, befogged docks of Brooklyn. And he’s even resurrected Terry himself in the person of Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy), the bartender of a watering hole used to stash the Chechen mafia’s dirty money. But despite its feel of authenticity and enticing beginning, the movie’s ultimately undone by writer Dennis Lehane’s damnable propensity to preposterous climaxes and deflating character revelations.

On the Waterfront represented the high point in post-war American movie acting, of course, with Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, and Lee J. Cobb turning in some of their greatest method performances as the hoods of Hoboken. And The Drop begs comparison for the strength of its own cast, too, with finely-tuned character acting from the whole ensemble. If Bob revivifies Terry Malloy, Tom Hardy makes his go at him as the new Brando. Hardy gives off the same searching, inarticulate quality, incarnating a man who tries to get along by following his bosses and not thinking about life too much. As with Brando, you can see him taking in questions with confusion, an inchoate inner life stirring up, and groping for answers. You can also see Hardy trying at the street-wise dialect and attitude, at first. But soon he settles down with the rest of the cast, to where you forget you’re watching a performer and not real-life locals. Like Terry, Bob finds himself caught in a compromised position without wishing it. His cousin Marv’s bar is held-up one night at closing, and the two of them (with James Gandolfini as the latter) occupy the dangerous middle ground between the crooks who knocked off the joint and the mobsters who demand their money back. Bob also gets drawn into the care of the vulnerable, against his intention, when he discovers a battered pit bull pup abandoned in a neighborhood trash can. An encounter ensues with the young woman, Nadia, living in the house; they succor the animal and the beginnings of a relationship percolate.

Noomi Rapace in The Drop
Nadia thus serves Bob as Edie does in Kazan’s picture; somehow, risking a relationship with her is tied to taking a moral risk at his day job. Noomi Rapace exudes the same wounded quality of Eva Marie Saint, but works in more toughness to this woman of Eastern European descent, what with her dark, arching eyebrows and sharp, high cheekbones. Their encounters at a dog park and her house over a beer are almost direct parallels to Brando and Saint’s famous scenes, and the actors here convey the same mixture of tentativeness, attraction, and blossoming vulnerability. Bob even wears Terry’s wool-lined bomber jacket, and Hardy channels—with his furrowed brow and slurred words—his combination of tough-guy exterior and good-man tenderness. The dialogue is of its place and people, ordinary yet somehow not banal. Bob asks Nadia if she’s named after the famous Romanian gymnast, and her surprise at how such a guy would know of Nadia Comaneci matches your own at how naturally the remark tumbles off Hardy’s tongue.

On the Waterfront took these fleshy, blue-collar proles and placed them in a moral universe that threw great weight behind the movie’s punch. The Drop sets the beginnings of such serious moral consequences, yet only the beginnings. Early on we see Bob worshipping at a Catholic Mass, staring at the Cross of St. Dominic. He doesn’t take communion, though, and when a fellow parishioner—who turns out to be the police detective investigating the robbery—queries him, he replies that it’s his own business. “You think?” the cop retorts (he might be the closest thing to Karl Malden’s priest from Kazan’s film). Bob also names the dog Rocco after seeing a statue of the patron saint of canines in his church. Though he wants to lead an inconspicuous existence, God and other people are calling him to relationships that reveal the truth—no man is an island, and everyone faces a moral question he can’t escape. The Catholic symbolism also suggests that the redemptive answer to this question will entail some degree of suffering, as it does for Terry. In this respect, The Drop looks like a promising companion to the Catholic sensibility of Martin Scorsese and Coppola, whose characters know that, as Charlie (Harvey Keitel) puts it at the opening of Mean Streets, you don’t make up for your sins in church—you do it at home, in the streets. The rest is just bullshit—the redemptive power of Christianity has to be won in real life.

You wait for this conflict between Bob’s position in the crime world and his moral duties to blossom—and wait and wait. At some point, I realized, with incredulity, that it wasn’t coming. Roskam and Lehane give no moral arc to Bob, nor develop any of the ideas they initially set forth. What begins as a question of sheltering a stray dog becomes the melodramatic focal point of Bob’s personal life, instead of the launch pad for deeper and more serious questions between him and Nadia. We are asked to care about who will get the dog, these compassionate people or the abusive owner, Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), who comes seeking it. The first inklings of characterization, so arrestingly thrown off by the actors, amount to nothing—we’re never given full sides of anybody. Nadia and Bob go nowhere, nor do we really understand his relationship with Marv, though the actors make you believe there’s a shared history. If you’re going to opt out of character development in a crime movie, you better damn well have a riveting plot driving the bus. Yet the filmmakers don’t even give the narrative a compelling, weaving crime conflict. After some initial threats, the mobsters disappear. Roskam and Lehane never raise the stakes with anything, either the basic story line of the mob leviathan exacting payback on petty crooks or that of a good man standing up to the crooked machine.

James Gandolfini in The Drop
This stumbling execution is almost improbable, given the evocative atmosphere and deft scene direction Roskam displays. The denizens of the waterfront have returned; Roskam’s extras and bit players have the same genuineness to them of the locals Kazan used in his picture. The pacing of each scene holds your interest, as do the human beings onscreen. Gandolfini gives yet another earthy turn that’s utterly grounded in the given circumstances of his character, as are all the performances. Nursing resentments over losing his turf to the Chechens, beset by worries at home, where he lives with his sister (Ann Dowd, who excels in their brief scenes) Marv negotiates his relationships with the creeping sense that he’s schemes are getting away from him. Gandolfini makes the dialogue a part of his skin, it seems, and it comes out of him like he’s lived in the borough for decades. Unfortunately, it’s never self-revelatory, nor is it with any character. I was aching for this final performance of his to add up to a portrayal worthy of his powers. I was aching for that from all the performances, in fact. Michael Aronov is terrifying as the mobster Chovka; with those jet black eyes, he somehow frightens you just by how he drinks a shot at the bar. James Frecheville, strong in last year’s Adore, grabs your attention in just two brief scenes, giving a completely different turn as a white trash Brooklyn hood. Schoenaerts also shoots off electricity as the psychopathic Deeds. Only John Ortiz seems miscast, as the detective Torres; his Latino suave and upbeat smile seem out of a different movie.

It’s commendable that these actors keep you watching even as both their characters and the narrative stagnate (and as the melodramatic, second-rate score plays under their scenes). The Drop is the fourth of Dennis Lehane’s novels to receive a film adaptation, and it stands with Gone, Baby, Gone as the best of them (In part because Mystic River and Shutter Island are absurd on so many levels). But just as with Ben Affleck’s movie, Lehane can’t help but give into gimmicky plot punches and insane character twists that are meant to shock but instead only numb. Why would a woman like Nadia date a man who’s clearly psychopathic, you keep wondering? (Turns out she’s got a thing for nutjobs.) And the climax, which Roskam builds to with such slowness and pomp, has all the comedown of a popped balloon. The Drop has some of the finer performances of American society’s white urban underclass we’ve seen in a long time, maybe even since Brando and his crew. In the end, it adds up to a frustrating, wasteful nothing.

– Nick Coccoma is a film, theatre, and culture critic. He blogs regularly at The Similitude and contributes to Full-Stop Magazine. His articles and postings on movies, religion, and drama have been featured on Andrew Sullivan’s The DishThe Rumpus3 Quarks Daily, and Catholic How. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as an actor, teacher, and chaplain. 

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