First, a word from our sponsors. Ever wonder what a reader for a contest or agency thinks when he reads your screenplay? Check out my new e-book published on Amazon: Rantings and Ravings of a Screenplay Reader, including my series of essays, What I Learned Reading for Contests This Year, and my film reviews of 2013. Only $2.99. http://ow.ly/xN31r
The film noir genre is a particularly American institution, one that took hold of the local populace during World War II and stayed strong until the 1960’s.
It had a great influence on movie making all over the world. Perhaps there was just something so satisfying to other countries about the U.S.’s finally washing its dirty laundry in public and exploring the amoral, immoral and sociopathic underpinnings of its society, bringing itself down off the pedestal it had so self-righteously put itself up on.
(An interesting irony here is that the movie world of the 1930’s, during the height of the depression, was one of optimism and a focus on people having frothy fun, while after taking down Hitler, and America entering one of its most prosperous periods in history, the movies are far more cynical and willing to explore the more unsavory underbelly of our world.)
It’s not that film noir died out. During the decade of Viet Nam, the civil and gay rights movement, and the fall of Nixon, we entered the neo noir period, with movies like Chinatown, Night Moves and The Late Show, to name but a few, that stand up to some of the best of the earlier ones by John Huston and Howard Hawkes.
And it’s a genre that is still immensely popular and, next to low budget sci-fi, is probably the most interesting genre of movies being made in the U.S. right now (as seen in such films as Night Moves—no, not the Gene Hackman one, but the Jessie Eisenberg one—and Cold In July, perhaps the best American film of the year so far).
And now we have The Drop, a neo noir about some characters whose lives revolve around a bar that is used as a way to pass on and launder money from the mob.
And, of course, being the American as apple pie genre that it is, the male lead is played by an Englishman; the female one by a Swede; the chief bad guy by a Belgian (all guided by a director who is also Belgian). Meanwhile, hovering in the background, is the Russian mob.
Only James Gandolfini, as Cousin Marv, former owner of the bar, now the manager after the Russians took over, was born in the U.S. It was also his last movie role before his untimely death, which may or may not be symbolic of the way this genre is heading.
I and a friend constantly speculate on why more and more the American film industry has to go outside the country’s borders, to places like Australia, Britain and Scandinavia, in order to find actors who can convincingly play alpha male, working class characters.
It’s not that we don’t have anyone (Jeremy Renner comes to mind), but for the most part it often feels as if we’re stuck with the more metrosexualness of a Ryan Gosling (and just for the record, I like Ryan Gosling, but I’m just saying…).
But to get back to the matter at hand, The Drop is a first rate character study of someone who is not what he seems because he’s smart enough to know you live longer if you don’t come across as who you really are.
This someone is one Bob, a lonely mug who is chief bartender and Cousin Marv’s assistant. He’s played by Tom Hardy (the Englishman, of Bronson, Locke, and the only good performance in Inception—and let’s just forget about The Dark Knight Rises, shall we, since that really wasn’t his fault).
Bob is a fascinating presence. The first impression he gives is not just that of being a bit dimwitted, but even maybe having a touch of mental slowness or even Aspergers.
But it’s not long before he’s quietly assessing situations, making observations about other characters and putting two and twos together in such a way that you realize Bob is actually the smartest guy in the room.
It’s a very cleverly written role with a very clever performance on the part of Hardy. He may spread the Brooklynese on a tad thicker than jam (in fact, just about everybody spreads it on a bit thick except for Gandolfini, who sticks with his more natural New Jerseyness), but Hardy gives a powerful performance.
You never know what to make of him, you just know that there is more to make of him that you think.
He quickly finds his life becoming more and more difficult due to the bar being robbed, putting Cousin Marv in bad with the mob, and his discovery of a beaten dog thrown away in a trash can.
This latter gets him involved with Nadia (Noomi Rapace, the Swede, and iconic star of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) whose sociopathic boyfriend Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts, the dynamic Belgian actor of Bullhead and Rust and Bone) has just gotten out of jail serving time for a killing many years earlier. He’s the one who threw the dog away.
The story becomes more and more complicated after that, and contrary to my usual style, I won’t reveal much more of it. Suffice it to say that it leads to a climax that is not completely unexpected, but sudden and shocking and in many ways, a complete surprise (partly in that everyone actually pulls it off—for awhile, there, I wasn’t sure they were going to be able to—talk about suspense).
The screenplay is by Dennis Lehane from his short story Animal Rescue. As far as I can tell, this is Lehane’s first screenplay. Before this he was better known for providing source material for such movies as Mystic River, Gone, Baby, Gone and Shutter Island.
It’s a marvelous bit of writing, rich in characterization (the police officers are the only ones who fall a bit flat) and carried by a riveting plot propelled by Catholic guilt (hey, world, Martin Scorcese has a successor), a deistic God and an unsympathetic world view.
The direction is by Michaȅl R. Roskam, the director from Belgium who gave us Bullhead, which also starred Schoenaerts (this is their third movie together).
Usually when a foreign director creates something electric, new and exciting, they are punished for their sins by being brought to the U.S. to direct something unworthy, often insultingly so, of their talents (such as Chan-wook Park and Stoker; Denis Villeneuve and Prisoners; and Tom Tykwer and Cloud Atlas).
Somehow Roskam has outfoxed them all, and like Nicolas Wending Refn, the Danish director of the Ryan Gosling Drive, has created a first rate piece of filmmaking.
It’s a ruthless, violent movie with a first rate cast that is ultimately extremely moving and touching.
With three dogs in the part of Rocco so the filmmakers could be consistent in size (though my friends, in our after movie discussion, didn’t think they were all that consistent).
Much has been said about the brutality of the story and the intense realism of what it’s like to be behind bars. It’s certainly not for the weak.
At the same time, it’s this intense realism and brutality that makes the movie what it is. Because as strong a movie as it is, as affective as it is, as must see as it is, I’m not sure the film itself is much more than this realism and brutality.
And I think that’s because there are two opposing forces at work here. At the forefront is the intense and violent realism.
But in counterpoint, there is an additional conflict, and that is between the realism of prison life and the more awkward dramatizing of the character arcs and psychology, as well as a plot that may feel a bit haphazard and familiar as well, all of which end up forming a very uneasy, arranged marriage rather than a satisfying union of true affection.
The plot revolves around Eric Love (the name is ironic since his life, basically, consists of not having any) who is transferred to an adult facility, possibly, though I’m not sure it’s ever clearly stated, because his violent tendencies became too much for a juvenile prison.
There he finds himself caught between varying factions: a do good reformer who has started a self-help group that aids people in controlling their anger; a corrupt chief of the guards who gets payoffs from the prisoner who runs the black market part of the facility; and Eric’s father, Neville, who is close to being the number two con in the joint.
So on the one hand we have Eric fighting for his life, doing whatever it takes to survive, while on the other hand we have various characters fighting for his soul.
But when the film seems to suggest that Eric’s problems can be boiled down to the standard trope that he has daddy issues (and that part of these issues is his discovery that his father may be gay as well, or he may not be, it’s sort of a what happens behind bars stays behind bars sort of thing), it may be a little hard to take it more seriously than an After School Special from the 1970’s.
And the idea that the lack of success when it comes to prisoner rehabilitation is more due to corrupt screws, though having some validity, seems to let the convicted felons a bit too off the hook.
The result, in the end, is that this attempt to save or damn the soul of Eric never quite comes across with the same emotional power of the violence, feeling a bit more pasted on.
In addition, the main through line gets a little off focus with an additional major conflict: that of the corrupt chief of guards wanting to get rid of the group therapist, which never seems to make all that much sense. After all, the therapist is so ineffective and has so little influence on anyone or anything, it’s hard to see why anyone cares.
At the same time, I feel as if I may be carping a bit too much here. There is so much of this movie that does grab you by the throat, that the lapses in the screenplay may seem minor. And it is one of the more unforgettable movies of the year.
With Jack O’Connell as Eric and Ben Mendolsohn (the sociopathic older brother in Animal Kingdom) as his father.
The screenplay by Jonathan Asser is his debut. The director David Mackenzie gave us the intriguing Young Adam starring Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton.