With the new year approaching, we celebrate our films of 2014. Michael R Roskam’s The Drop is up.
It could be that no movie in 2014 was elevated by its performances quite like The Drop. A seen-it-all-before New York mob tale about a low-level guy getting into trouble after romancing an ex-gangster’s moll, The Drop appeared totally unremarkable on paper. Add in the potentially cloying extra ingredient of a dog beaten by the bad guy and saved by the hero, who becomes the reluctant owner, and you’re left with someone that’d look no fun at all if it didn’t also star Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini and Matthias Schoenaerts.
The Drop is a lesson in how even in collected silence Tom Hardy is still a gigantic screen presence. He dominates this movie
They’re the ingredients that don’t just make The Drop worth the watch, but that electrify it into a Frankenstein of used parts that nonetheless moves in interesting ways. At the head you have Hardy, currently the best male lead in Hollywood, underplaying it as quiet, uncomplicated bartender Bob Saginowski. If Steven Knight’s Locke was the showcase for his towering charisma, The Drop is a lesson in how even in collected silence Hardy is still a gigantic screen presence. He dominates this movie, even if placid, unassuming Bob would rather the attention was anywhere else. Hardy is, in this and Locke – he gives two of 2014’s best performances in both – inescapably mesmerising.
Elsewhere, Noomi Rapace gives her best post-Stieg Larsson performance as the fragile Nadia, of whom Bob instinctively gathers it’s his duty to protect. That would be because Nadia’s ex is mentally unbalanced thug Eric Deeds, given a remarkably convincing chat and swagger by Belgian actor Matthias Schoenarts, who continues to do menacing and submerged vulnerability all too well. Cap it off with a roughly melancholy James Gandolfini as Bob’s cousin Marv, a once-upon-a-time big shot who’s been reduced to lackey for the Chechen gangsters that moved in on his turf and took over his bar, and you have the acting quartet of 2014.
The Drop’s tale of crime in the gutters of NYC may be familiar stuff, but director Michael Roskam asks his cast to do something stars seem so rarely encouraged to do in Hollywood productions these days: build character and conjure up a sense of truth. It could be that the typical American gangster movie was just waiting for reassessment by a fresh European eye. And so, these stereotypes aren’t stereotypes anymore: Marv’s hard exterior only hides the feeling of resignation over his poor lot in life; Eric’s tough guy act is a mask for his insecurity and apparent mental illness; and, as we come to discover, the dopey but well-meaning Bob hides more sinister sensibilities that only emerge when he begins to sense danger.
We come to sympathise with the villain, and fear our own protagonist. Few gangster movies are brave enough to be so callous
A whole history is suggested in the way Bob barely flinches as armed robbers raid the ‘drop’ bar he runs with Marv, or in how quickly Nadia crumbles at the sight of Eric. What we’re witnessing here is a return to a lost style of Hollywood actors’ directing, where it’s assumed subtleties can be picked up by an audience that doesn’t need character motivation spelling out. As written by Dennis Lehane, the script is predictably always on the lookout for the grey reality beneath the criminal myth, and as directed by Roskam, the film feels like an ever-intensifying build-up towards a crucial showdown.
What that finale does come, and the predictable twist with it, the film is no less wrenching for the outcome’s early signposting. Our initial assumptions about Bob, Eric and Marv, these three mysteries of almost caveman-like gruff masculinity, are upended with a series of third act revelations. We come to sympathise with the villain, and fear our own protagonist. Few gangster movies, including much more violent examples than this, are brave enough to be so callous.
Fewer, meanwhile, are content with being so ordinary. What romance there might be between Bob and Nadia is stifled and hesitant, while mobsterism is made about as glamorous as the wintry Brooklyn setting. Executions are over in a flash, and the highlight of Bob and Marv’s week is when their bar acts as a temporary deposit station for dirty mob money. Heat from the law gets about as intense as the pair being paid a visit by a detective (John Ortiz) who knows deep down he’s helpless to impose any kind of order upon these parts.
In The Drop, as in the previous Lehane works that we’ve seen make it to the big screen, darkness sits somewhere deeper
Like Bob, The Drop’s OK with appearing so mundane, with outwardly being everything you’d expect it to be; though, as in the previous Lehane works that we’ve seen make it to the big screen, darkness sits somewhere deeper. The author – along with confident one-to-watch Roskam - eases you into a world wherein the cops are irrelevant secondary characters, where the mob ‘law’ of the street favours the ruthless and the cunning, and asks you to accept it as normality.
All images: Fox Searchlight Pictures