Film Review: 'The Drop'

The Drop (2014), Michael R. Roskam’s respectable follow-up to 2011’s Bullhead, finds the Belgian director on different shores, working from a Dennis Lehane script and aiming to recreate the dramatic richness of James Gray’s auteurist Brooklyn crime dramas. A familiar story of families, criminality and blue collar angst, it’s a meaty, entertaining work featuring fine performances from its talented cast, including the final screen bow of the late James Gandolfini. For cinephiles however, the real interest lies in the questions it inadvertently raises about the increasing influence of the heavyweight crime-writers in the new century; their creative dominance in certain pictures becoming akin to its own form of auteurism.

The Drop is strewn with labored screenwriting signifiers; the kind of heavy-handed metaphors scattered throughout a film serving to impose a writer’s thesis on the work, as if to insulate it from a director’s creative interference. But these elements in The Drop are so earnestly exaggerated that they become a kind of strength, rendering a crude but potent thematic glue. Dogs, broken angels and closed churches; these images become Lehane’s narrative currency, driving the story to its fateful conclusion. Roskam is at a loss to temper them, evidently content to leave his fate in the writer’s hands, with his direction treading the fine line between nervousness and cautiousness. Perhaps the milieu is so blatantly Lehane’s stock-in-trade that Roskam was loath to tinker with it.

It takes a strong director to wrestle with a crime titan. Take The Counselor (2013) for instance; Cormac McCarthy’s script is a dense, unwieldy beast, but Ridley Scott tackled it the only way he knew how – with imposing visual flourish. The joys of The Counselor are found in the curious dichotomy created by these competing visions, resulting in a superbly glib and pessimistic work of finely tuned digi-gloss. Roskam, on the other hand, lets Lehane have his own way, and the picture is all the more conservative for it. Which is not to say that it doesn’t work. The Drop is coolly atmospheric; evoking a world of pervasive criminality and burdened by a constant sense of impending violence.

The Brooklyn of the film is a place of secrets and dynasties; a borough defined by old crimes and generations in disrepair. The story focuses on Gandolfini’s bar owner and his barman Bob (Tom Hardy), as the pair become embroiled in gangland debt following a bungled robbery. They each deal with the fallout in their own way, the former with nervous activity and the latter with mournful resignation, but both are concealing a constant, ephemeral fear. It recalls the anxious blue collar grit of Bruce Springsteen’s eerily prescient evocations of New Jersey criminality (“We got ourselves out on that line / And if we blow this one, they ain’t gonna be looking for me just this time”). These are lives in debt; to gangsters, families and to the past. The Drop has plenty to recommend it, but here’s hoping for some more of Roskam next time.

Craig Williams | @CraigFilm


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