by M. Faust
Film noir, and the hardboiled fiction that inspires much of it, is about the losers of the world. No question, Brooklyn bartender Bob Saginowski is one of those.
He used to be part of a crew, put together by him and his cousin Marv. But they got pushed out of business by Chechen gangsters, who took over Marv’s bar. The bar does moderate business with a local clientele, but it’s real function is as a “drop,” where the cash from the gang’s various illegal activities is held for short periods to hide it from the law. The Chechens control a number of them to keep the cops from catching on. Robbing a mob drop is a very stupid thing to do—they take it personally. But the world is not lacking for stupid people.
The Drop is the first film scripted by Boston crime novelist Dennis Lehane, in my estimation one of the handful of top crime writers at work today. Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone and Shutter Island were all adapted from his novels. He’s also one of the powers behind Boardwalk Empire, and his newly published Live by Night will be filmed by Ben Affleck. The Drop was adapted from “Animal Behavior,” a short story he wrote for the 2009 collection Boston Noir.
If that rings a bell, you probably recognize it as the last film credit (prior to retitling) for the late James Gandolfini. He plays Cousin Marv, and while the role doesn’t break any new ground for him (as did playing the romantic lead in his penultimate movie, Enough Said), it’s still a solid piece of work as a tough guy undone by his weaknesses and bitterness.
Bob is played by Tom Hardy, one of those actors I’ve seen a dozen times but whose face I can never remember. (To be fair, you can hardly see his face in his biggest role, the villainous Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.) That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it indicates an ability to vanish into roles. And Bob is the kind of guy who wants nothing more than to vanish into the woodwork. He lives alone in the house he inherited from his parents, has no real friends, and doesn’t know how to cope when life throws him the relatively simple chore of caring for a puppy.
(Minor spoiler: the movie contains an adorable pit bull puppy. While this is the kind of movie in which you expect a certain amount of violence and mayhem, none of it befalls the dog. I know that some of you worry.)
Directed by Belgian arrival Michaël Roskam, whose well-regarded Bullhead never made it to local theaters, The Drop for much of its running time seems to be little more than a mood piece about Brooklyn lowlifes. But the ending, which caught me off guard, puts the entire movie into a different perspective, one with a stronger punch than I was expecting.
The Drop premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, where I had a brief chance to speak with the film’s writer and director. I asked Lehane why the setting was moved from his usual stomping ground of Boston to Brooklyn.
He prefaces his answer by praising Fox Searchlight and the film’s producers. “Right from the beginning they were like, OK Dennis, this is the film you want to make, so this is the film we want to make. There were never any of those fucking studio calls—‘Yeeeeah, we really think that if the main character was just a little more likeable...’—where they want to dilute it in the interest of pulling in a few more dollars.
“They did call me in and say, look, we feel like the white trash urban Boston crime story is a little played out: Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, The Departed, The Town. Mostly you’re a victim of your own success. They suggested Brooklyn, and I thought, that’s an easy transposition. These are both manufacturing-based, northern European immigrant based, parochial urban pockets in the United States that are vanishing—the ethnicity is changing, the way people make money is changing, the influence of the Catholic church, all of which were subthemes in the script.”
For Roskam, who hails from the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, Brooklyn was especially welcoming. “The official motto of Brooklyn is Dutch—‘Een Draght Mackt Maght’ (‘In unity there is strength.’) I read that and thought, I can play Brooklyn in a good way.”
Unlike the last films of Philip Seymour Hoffman, which were in theaters within six months of the actor’s demise, The Drop arrives in theaters nearly a year and a half after it was filmed. Roskam, who still lives with his family in Belgium, explains the delay was due to both security and goodwill.
“The studio requires very severe safety matters on the material, for copying piracy concerns. In my country I’d just take the movie home on a USB stick to watch it while the editor thinks about it over the weekend. Here, if I lose the stick the movie is on the internet 20 minutes later.
“Then the creative reason: the movie is a very slow burn, it’s layers are very balanced, so we were allowed to take our time in the editing process. Searchlight told us, we know this is going to be a great film, if you need time, take it. And it shows that they really believe in the film that they held it to launch at a big festival like Toronto.”
Although Lehane has become a force in Hollywood, he has previously refused to adapt his own work, because “I can’t be trusted. It’s like how you don’t trust a surgeon to operate on his own child. Mystic River was 401 pages. If I could have brought it in at 399 pages I would have, and if it could be 420 pages it would. It’s whatever it actually takes to write that novel. Then you turn around and say to that person who spent years getting it to 401 pages, now can you turn it into 120 for a script? No!
“This is literally a re-creation of a conversation I had with Clint Eastwood when he bought Mystic River. He asked me to adapt it, and I said, I’m just not the guy. Get somebody who does this well. Not my skill set. So when it came to [adapting a short story], I thought, what an opposite concept, I can take this little thing and blow it up. It was totally fun, it wasn’t painful at all.”
Watch the trailer for The Drop
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