Friday, September 12, 2014

The Drop

"A well-written, expertly directed and masterfully played slow-burning drama." Made for people with an appreciation for slow, unfolding character studies.

Rated R for some strong violence and pervasive language.

The Drop

‘The Drop’ is directed by Michael R. Roskam and written for the screen by Dennis Lehane, who has adapted his own short story Animal Rescue (which was the working title during production). The animal in question is small pit bull terrier Rocco, saved from a certain death (no animal cruelty is seen) by Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy), a tender for Brooklyn-based bar Cousin Marv’s. Bob gets along quite well with Marv (James Gandolfini), but things start to go awry when the bar is robbed and Chechen mobsters ruffle some feathers.

Those who have seen Roskam’s previous feature Bullhead (and if you haven’t, you’re missing out) know the director’s penchant for creating very intimate, small, even unremarkable (at first glance) scenes that really flesh out a character’s motivation and internal drive. It may be a towering cliché that a director/screenwriter has to take the time to properly introduce and sketch a character in order for the audience to care, but it’s a cliché that actually makes a lot of sense. Thanks to the deliberate slow pace (the first hour is a smoldering, coasting affair), we get under the skin of Tom Hardy’s Bob and really get to appreciate his decisions, however questionable they may be. It’s these small scenes that really sell the movie. At a certain moment (no spoilers), Bob and Nadia (Noomi Rapace) are sitting down, talking and having a beer. Small talk that doesn’t even advance the plot. But it’s a very effective directorial choice, because you believe in the conversation and its participants. At that point, you completely forget you’re watching a screenplay-driven story. You’re convinced you’re a fly on the wall of an actual, non-fictional tale.

Another excellent moment comes when the Chechen gangsters enter the bar for a drink. One of them wants a Stella Artois (one of many Belgian elements), and Bob subsequently suggests a strong brand of spirit of his own liking to the Chechen’s head Chovka. At first, the guy doesn’t seem to appreciate the suggestion and gives him a “who are you to tell me what I need to drink?” look. But then, he does take a sip and likes the beverage. Very much so. He even advises his compadre to leave the Stella be, and try the stronger stuff instead. Such a scene has again little to no relevance to the plot, but it works oh so wonderfully well.

Tom Hardy deserves a “Best Actor” Oscar. There, I’ve said it. The man – cool in Inception, threatening in The Dark Knight Rises – will blow you away with his impressive acting chops. It’s really quite a marvel to witness just how subtle and convincing he fills every frame. Take a closer look at how he walks. How many times can you say you will notice how a character walks? Bob, constantly on the edge because of how things around him transpire (with or without his input), seems to strut around with fragile eggs in his pockets. He never full-on goes, he shuffles. As if in pain, fear or doubt. Must be a Roskam directorial touch, for Matthias Schoenaerts’ Jacky (in Bullhead) always seemed to stumble and lurch like, well, a bull. And it’s not just the way Hardy makes his character move. There are a few close-ups (“too close, a little bit too close”, Aladdin-style, in which part of his hair and chin are even lost) where he will be looking down, a character will react, and he will very subtly look up and meet eyes. In those moments, the camera will linger just long enough for the audience to see his burden, his pain, his fears and his doubts. Tom Hardy is the real driving force behind The Drop, and he never, ever drops the ball.

The rest of the cast is excellent, too. Having never seen ‘The Sopranos’ (bar the pilot), I never noticed similarities between James Gandolfini’s Marv and his breakthrough role of Tony Soprano (as some critics duly noted). No, I saw a fully-realized bar owner that’s facing hard times. It’s sad his death couldn’t be avoided (the heart just has a way of quitting ahead of time), but he does look strangely unhealthy. Smoking, sweating and huffing and puffing his way through the motions, like a gangster during one final heist. Noomi Rapace impresses with a genuine sweetness buried under the hardened façade of a woman who has met too many scoundrels in her life. She can’t quite shake off her Swedish roots (with a sometimes slipping accent), but she never comes across as a fake New Yorker. You always believe she’s real, troubled and worried. And having the best intentions.

When the tables turn near the end and major revelations take place, the story never loses its focus in keeping its main characters unbelievably real and grounded. Bob’s undying love for his dog will be very recognizable for canine lovers across the globe. These animals’ unquestioned devotion pushes any well-meaning owner to do a lot of crazy, at first glance insane things for the sake of their pet. Amidst the controlled chaos (which, strangely, is not a contradiction), Bob looks out for what’s best for Rocco. The animal is one of his main drives, and he’s relentless in his dedication. And then, when all is said and done, and the events have unraveled before our eyes, Roskam unleashes his coda. One more intimate scene that beautifully closes the movie. An triumphant epilogue of hope. Grand cinema.

The Drop is one of the first American films by a Belgian director. Jan Verheyen made The Little Death in the 90’s (and likes you to forget that fact) and Erik Van Looy’s The Loft is still forthcoming (while filmed in 2011), but Michael Roskam’s The Drop is currently playing in American cinemas. A fact proudly stated in every Belgian review of the movie. Our country’s contribution to The Drop doesn’t end there. Cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis (who famously turned down a Michael Mann offer to film the smaller though very promising Belgian horror flick Cub) makes the most of every shot, showing exquisite eye for beautiful frames. And then there’s Matthias Schoenaerts, whose star has been rising since Bullhead and Rust and Bone. Since then, he has been courted by the likes of Alan Rickman and Thomas Vinterberg. You may only be able to name Jean-Claude Van Damme in a quiz on Belgian actors, but you will soon know the surname “Schoenaerts” by heart.

The Drop is a wonderful movie. Carefully written, expertly directed and masterfully played by its impressive cast. Check it out today. And give Tom Hardy an Oscar, dear Academy.

4 out of 5

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