Movie Reviews - 2014 postsMonday October 27, 2014
Movie Review: Deux jours, une nuit (2014)
Watching “Deux jours, une nuit,” the new film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (“Le gamin au velo”), I kept flashing back to my days canvassing for Greenpeace. Also Steven Spielberg’s “Munich.”
Part of the problem with “Munich,” remember, was the counting game. Five Mossad agents are going after the 11 terrorists who killed Israeli athletes during the 1972 Summer Olympics, and the first kill takes a while. So does the second. You think, “There are nine more of these?” There aren’t, not that way, but the anticipation of the count, how much more we have to go, weighs on you as you watch.
In “Deux jours,” Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a working girl recently suffering from depression. But she is back “en forme” as she says on the phone to a friend, only to learn that in her absence the boss decided he didn’t need all 17 workers, only 16, and so, apparently unable to fire her outright, offered his employees a Faustian bargain: Sandra could keep her job but they would all lose a €1,000 bonus. Their call. Fourteen of the 16 opt for the dough. But her friend, Juliette (Catherine Salée), claims the foreman unfairly influenced the election, and works to get another vote Monday morning. This gives Sandra the weekend to visit and talk with her coworkers; to get them on her side; to get them to give up €1,000 for her.
That’s the canvassing-for-Greenpeace thing: going door-to-door and asking for money.
It’s also the counting game: She has 14 people to visit—no, 13, she just won somebody on the phone—and you think, a la “Munich,” surely we won’t get each of these.
We do. But you know what’s interesting? It’s interesting.
Canvassing for Greenpeace
It helps that it’s Marion Cotillard doing the asking. The Dardennes try to make her look average, but ... Well, bon effort. I think their efforts backfire, to be honest. I think Cotillard looks better without much makeup, with less covering her face. At one point, Sandra is crying, telling her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), how she feels invisible, and he’s consoling her with the words husbands usually use, but all I could think was: “Plus you’re one of the most beautiful women in the world. So you’ve got that going for you.”
Cotillard acts the movie slightly hunched, as if Sandra is trying to hide from the world, which she is. She’s a fragile woman, with two kids, fighting for a blue-collar job, but she just wants to go to her room and go to sleep. Maybe forever? Plus she’s just too nice. She almost makes the case against herself during the visits: €1,000, c’mon, everyone needs that. And nothing comes of the first two.
If she doesn’t convince the third, either, it’s only because he’s already decided. His name is Timur (first-time actor Timur Magomedgadzhiev), and he’s on the futbol field, coaching, when she visits late Saturday morning and asks if he’ll vote with her. He stares at her intensely. “Of course I will,” he says. Then he breaks down crying. He remembers how she helped him out in the past. He’s felt so guilty since the day before. “I’m really glad you’re here,” he says. It’s a welcome moment—for her and for us. It’s such a release, I began to laugh. She’s now got four with nine to go.
That’s also why it’s interesting. It’s scorekeeping. It’s less, “God, we’ve still got five more to go,” and more, “Oh no, we’ve only got five more to go!”
Then there’s the variety of responses. Most are like her—seeing both sides—and some fall this way and some that. A few are vehemently for her, while a few think she’s stealing from them. One gets violent.
It’s this aspect, the variety of responses, that really reminded me of canvassing for Greenpeace. You never knew what was behind that door. Most were blasé. A few were totally glad to see you. Then there were the angry people. They made you feel like you didn’t want to go on.
Sandra feels this way most of the time. She’s the exact wrong person to be doing this: an introvert getting over depression. But off she goes. And her pitch improves. A bit. It’s not like she begins as herself, fumbling and hemming and hawing, and winds up like William Jennings Bryan; she just gets a little better.
“Little” is the optimum word here. “Deux jours, une nuit” is all small, straightforward moments. It’s this small window into these small lives. Even the big moment—the attempted suicide—happens so straightforwardly, with so little drama, that when it’s happening you hardly realize it, and when it’s revealed to others it’s not without humor.
Turning up the volume
In the end, Sandra doesn’t win. She gets eight of the 16, and that’s not a majority, so there goes her job. But the boss is impressed that she did as well as she did, so he offers her a Faustian bargain: In a few months, he’ll let go one of the contractors—a man who just voted with her—and she’ll get his job. Sandra turns him down. Because in a way she’s already won. Just the struggle to visit everyone, to do this thing, is a victory for her. “We put up a good fight,” she tells her husband on the phone. “I’m happy.” It’s a nice ending. I’m a fan of win-by-losing movies (ex.: “Casablanca”), and this is that.
Two additional things.
One—and not to be a drag—but every job is a kind of Faustian bargain. It’s competition: you vs. every other applicant for the position. That’s why people like Sandra, the empathetic ones, tend to get ground up. They don’t have the stomach for it.
The second thing is a little embarrassing. Because it’s gushy. About You-Know-Who.
There’s a moment in the movie where I felt like I fell in love all over again. Sandra and her husband are driving to visit another coworker. She’s tired, worn down, and on the radio the French version of “Needles and Pins” comes on, which Manu mutes slightly. Because? She thinks he’s worried too much about her state of mind, that he’s trying to protect her from the sad songs of the world, and she objects. And in defiance she turns up the volume. Then she smiles.
It’s not a pretty smile, necessarily. It’s not a smile to grace the cover of a magazine. But there’s a world in it. It’s self-amused. It says this: My bold defiance is silly, I know, but I’m still glad, maybe even slightly proud, that I did it. There’s such humanity there. You can see it here, in this trailer, at 58 seconds in. Just remember: I saw her first.
Movie Review: Kill the Messenger (2014)
Why is it flat? Why doesn’t it quite work?
“Kill the Messenger” was directed by Michael Cuesta (“L.I.E.”), and written by Peter Landesman (the underrated “Parkland”), and it tells the true story of Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), a good investigative reporter for a small newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, who stumbles upon a huge international story: that during the 1980s, in the middle of the “Just Say No” decade, the CIA ...
OK, what was the accusation again? Maybe that’s part of the problem. Even after seeing the movie, it’s still a bit murky.
Let me try. So while the Reagan administration was trading arms for hostages in order to illegally fund the Nicaraguan Contras, the CIA ... turned a blind eye toward Latin American drug suppliers who were funding the Contras? Abetted Latin American drug suppliers who were funding the Contras? Funneled cocaine into the U.S. in order to fund the Contras? I was never quite sure the extent of CIA involvement.
But at the least, blind eyes were involved. Vast hypocrisy was involved.
Too true to tell
The movie starts out not bad. Webb is doing a piece on drug forfeiture law—how property can be confiscated by the government without anyone being charged with a crime—when he gets a call from Coral Baca (an impossibly hot Paz Vega), whose boyfriend, Rafael Cornejo, is being prosecuted on drug charges. Her charge? “He sold drugs for the government.” She shows Webb a redacted court transcript and points him to Danilo Blandon (Yul Vazquez), a former drug supplier/Contra supporter, now DEA informant. But when Webb mentions Blandon to federal prosecutor Russell Dodson (Barry Pepper), the charges against Cornejo are quickly dropped—as Baca knew they would be. Webb has been used. But now he senses a bigger story in Blandon.
He follows him to the trial of L.A. crack kingpin Ricky Ross (Michael Kenneth Williams, doomed to play such roles), and convinces Ross’ attorney, Alan Fenster (Tim Blake Nelson), to delve into Blandon’s background during cross-examination. On the stand, Blandon admits that the U.S. government, or at least the CIA, was aware that he smuggled tons of cocaine into the country. This testimony leads Webb to drug kingpin Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia) in prison in Nicaragua, who points him to Swiss banker Hansjorg Baier (Brett Rice), also in Nicaragua. Then Webb goes to D.C.
There, he gets the usual warnings away from the story from low-level bureaucrats and shadowy agents. The best exchange is probably this:
CIA official: We’d never threaten your children, Mr. Webb.
Webb [stunned pause]: What did you say?
That’s nice: the denial of the threat serving as the threat. But the big line of the movie comes from government official Fred Weil (Michael Sheen), who tells him the story won’t get out, adding, “Some stories are just too true to tell.”
So what happens? Webb returns to California, writes his story anyway, and it goes national. He’s slapped on the back by his contemporaries. Then his life falls apart.
All the Insider’s Men
A quarter of the way through the movie, I thought, “This would be so much better if it had been directed by Michael Mann.” Three quarters of the way through, I thought, “Oh, it was. It was just called ‘The Insider.’”
In “The Insider,” “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), helps draw out a corporate vice-president, Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), to go on the record about a Big Tobacco scandal. But then CBS Corporate gets cold feet, Wigand is besmirched, and the news story becomes petty shit about Wigand. Bergman has to betray friends and associates in order to not betray Wigand. The two men win a battle that is everywhere else being lost.
In “Kill the Messenger,” Webb is both Bergman and Wigand, reporter and besmirched. He becomes the story. Because the L.A. Times is jealous it got scooped? Because the Washington Post, the newspaper of Woodward and Bernstein, is too close to the CIA? Both accusations are implied here. Webb’s editor gets cold feet. Corporate is called in. Lawyers are called in—to protect the paper, not Webb. He’s shuttled off to a smaller newspaper. Does his wife leave him? Does he leave her? All of this is murky, too.
What isn’t murky enough is our faith in Webb. The Mercury News doublechecks the story after the accusations, and Meneses denies he spoke to Webb while Baier can’t be found. But we saw Webb talking to Meneses, and we see Baier being kidnapped, so we know everyone else is wrong. Maybe if we’d been kept in the dark, too, or a little, it might’ve made the movie more interesting. We would’ve had something to wonder. Instead, Webb comes off as blandly forthright and heroic. He drinks a bit, smokes a little pot, had an affair in the past. But he’s a decent husband, a decent father. To be honest, it’s not a great performance by Jeremy Renner. It’s one of the few times I’ve found him dull.
I did like his reaction after the story was first printed. He didn’t act triumphant; he almost acted guilty. Because his family had been threatened if he ran with the story, and he ran with it anyway? As if his family didn’t matter? Not sure. But it added a touch of mystery to what was generally obvious.
Or familiar. I kept getting flashes of not only “The Insider” but “All the President’s Men.” Maybe this was inevitable. Or maybe the filmmakers were too enamored of these movies to properly make their own. But the courtroom scene with the CIA revelation from Blandon, with Webb the only reporter present? That’s like the courtroom scene with the CIA revelation from McCord, with Woodward the only reporter present. Or when Webb feels like he’s being followed into the parking garage? Compare with Woodward’s paranoia after the parking garage, or the nighttime golf-range scene in “The Insider.” Here it’s: “We got a call from corporate this morning.” There it’s: “Corporate has some questions.”
Too bad. Its subjects are worth contemplating: the War on Drugs; the national-security state; the back-biting, sensationalistic nature of the national media, which seems to hinder more than it helps. Early in the movie, Webb is asked for the secret to his reporting, and he responds, “I don’t know ... Don’t let the assholes win?” Here, they win. And they haven’t really stopped winning.
At least “Kill the Messenger,” set almost 20 years ago, about crimes almost 30 years old, opened my eyes to a contemporary danger: the NSA spy program. All along, I’ve basically given the scandal a post-9/11 shrug: “You’re one in 300 million. There’s safety in numbers. They won’t focus on you unless you need to be focused on.” Or—the movie made me realize—unless you’re Joe Wilson. Or Jeffrey Wigand. Or Woodward and Bernstein. Or Gary Webb.
Movie Review: Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
At first I thought: “Oh, they’re doing ‘Groundhog Day.” Then I thought: “Oh, it’s like a video game.” At the end I realized: “It’s like a movie. But not because it is a movie.”
More on that later.
First, why it’s like “Groundhog Dog” but not as good as “Groundhog Day.”
“Groundhog Day,” co-written and directed by Harold Ramis, took a shallow weatherman, Phil (Bill Murray), and forced him to live the same lousy day over and over until he became a decent person. It’s about the growth of the soul. It’s funny and inventive.
“Edge of Tomorrow,” directed by Doug Liman, takes a shallow PR exec, Cage (Tom Cruise), and forces him to live the same lousy day over and over—the day he dies, actually—until he becomes such an expert soldier that he saves not only himself but all of humanity from an alien attack. It’s often funny and inventive. But it’s less about the growth of the soul than about getting good enough at soldiering (leaping and dodging and shooting) to make it to the next level.
Which is why it’s like a video game. You play until you die and then you start over again.
For some people—gamers, hipsters, folks trying to monetize the popularity of video games into the movie business—this is a plus. Not me. I got bored. Tom Cruise is the avatar, Liman and company are making him jump and dodge and shoot, and I’m just sitting there. Hey, watch out for the ...! Right. GAME OVER. Reboot.
As the movie starts, we get news reports of a meteor landing in Germany. It turns out to be an alien attack. These aliens are like sand worms mixed with the Tasmanian Devil, and they spread out from Germany, even as the United Defense Force, under the command of Gen. Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), readies a counterattack from Britain called “Operation Downfall.” So it’s basically a sci-fi version of World War II. It’s sci-fi Normandy. Because that’s cool? Because that’s the only way we can comprehend it? Because the filmmakers are lazy?
We first see Maj. Cage on cable news, promoting the “Angel of Verdun,” Rita (Emily Blunt), a super-soldier who stopped the alien attack in northern France. “We fight,” he tells the camera with authority. “That’s what we do.”
Well, he doesn’t. Gen. Brigham wants Cage to film “Operation Downfall” but Cage wants no part of it. “I’m not a soldier, really,” he says. “I can’t stand the sight of blood.” Brigham doesn’t take no for an answer. So Cage tries to blackmail him. For that he’s arrested, tased, and wakes up on some duffel bags at Heathrow airport. “On your feet, Maggot!” a sergeant yells at him. This will be the reboot point for the rest of the movie. The START OVER point.
It’s a nightmare point for Cage. He’s been busted to private and assigned to combat in J Squad, none of whom like him particularly. Why should they? Suddenly they’re fighting next to a guy who can’t fight. Why would the general even do that? Doesn’t he like J Squad? And why doesn’t anyone recognize him from TV?
In an inspired bit of casting, the Master Sergeant for J Squad is Bill Paxton, the original “Game Over” dude, who gets off some good lines. Asked if he’s American, he replies, “No, sir, I’m from Kentucky.” Before the mission, he tells Cage, in words that echo, “Tomorrow, you will be baptized. Born again!”
The invasion, of course, is a trap, the soldiers are slaughtered, Cage dies. Ah, but because in his panic he kills an “Alpha,” an alien that can reset time, and its blood mixes with his, he develops this ability. For a while he doesn’t know it. For a while, he’s merely experiencing a massive sense of déjà vu. But eventually, in the third or fourth incarnation, the Angel of Verdun herself tells him what’s going on. She had that ability for a while. Thus Verdun. “An enemy that knows the future can’t lose,” she says. Now Cage has that ability. So what will he do with it?
(BTW: For a race that can know the future, they do an awful job of keeping this ability out of the hands—or the blood—of the enemy, don’t they? And isn’t that a fairly easy security breach? “We’ll be fine in this war as long as no one bleeds on anyone.”)
Here’s what Cage does with the ability to reset time. He trains and trains and trains. He goes from PR flak to supersoldier. Then he has to make it off the beach and into the countryside. Then he and Rita have to leave this farmhouse and attack this mountain. Then ...
Right. Different levels.
The end game is the Omega, the aliens’ “hive mind.” But the Omega isn’t in the equivalent of Berchtesgaden, as originally thought; that was a ruse. It’s under the Louvre, man. So that becomes the fight. Except in one iteration, Cage isn’t killed but merely wounded. And he’s given a blood transfusion. And there goes his power to reset time.
A quick aside. Years ago, I tested video games for Microsoft PCs and Xbox; and one night we were testing, I believe, “Midtown Madness,” a car racing game, and we went late, 2 or 3 a.m., after which I drove home. And it was odd. I had to remind myself, “Oh, this is real.” I’d been crashing and dying and rebooting without consequence for so long that I had to consciously remind myself that life had consequences.
It would’ve been nice if Cage, after losing his reboot abilities, had had a similar epiphany.
Instead, he and Rita and J Squad simply team up to attack the Omega, and they all die in the process. Including Cage. But then—because he killed the hive mind?—he’s reborn earlier than at his reboot point, before his encounter with Gen. Brigham, who informs him that the aliens have died off on their own. He did it, Cage did it, but no one knows. Except him. And us. Hoorah.
We've seen this hero before
So here’s why this movie is like a movie. And why it’s disappointing in that regard.
In the beginning, Cruise’s character, Cage, is somewhat shallow and cowardly. He doesn’t have special abilities. He’s like us entering the darkened theater with our tub of popcorn. Then as the movie progresses he becomes the wish-fulfillment fantasy, just as we, munching our popcorn in the dark, transfer ourselves into this heroic character on screen.
The process that Cage goes through in the movie is the process we all go through watching movies.
And that’s why I was ultimately disappointed. The shallow, fearful Cruise at the beginning? He was refreshing. The hero he became? We’ve seen that guy a thousand times.
Movie Review: Gone Girl (2014)
Sadly, I figured out the plot twist before I even saw it. The week it premiered, I came across a headline, “Is ‘Gone Girl’ Misogynistic?” and that’s pretty much all it took. I knew the movie was about a pretty blonde, Amy (Rosamund Pike), whose husband, Nick (Ben Affleck), becomes the chief suspect, and a cable news cad, after her disappearance. So our big question going in is: Does he or doesn’t he? But if the movie can be accused of misogyny, not only does it clear Nick but it implicates Amy. Maybe she just leaves? Maybe she manufactures the whole thing to get attention—or to turn the world against her husband? Which, yes, turns out to be the case.
So be more careful with your headlines, everybody.
I don’t even agree with the implication in the headline. At some point the one doesn’t represent the whole. Amy isn’t all women any more than Norman Bates is all men. Nor Nick, for that matter. Nick is lazy, adulterous, dull, cowardly. Most of the men in this movie are playthings for the women. That moment when Amy and Det. Rhonda Boney (an excellent Kim Dickens) get into a subtle staredown after Amy’s reappearance, with a scrum of concerned FBI agents between them, I flashed on Margaret Atwood’s novel “Cat’s Eye,” and thought things were about to get good. But that was it. They had Det. Boney peel off from the story. Too bad. It was a nice scene anyway. With the dopey FBI men acting solicitous toward Amy (who was a murderer), and stern toward Det. Boney (who was simply doing her job), I began to laugh out loud.
That’s something I didn’t see coming. “Gone Girl,” based on the best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn, is a David Fincher crime story so in the tradition of gritty, gruesome stuff like “Se7en” and “Zodiac” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” The last thing you expect are laughs. Yet they keep coming. The movie is an absurdist take on marriage and privilege and fame and infamy. It’s high camp. It’s the funniest movie David Fincher has made.
When did I begin laughing? I think when the parents arrived in Missouri.
Amy goes missing on the afternoon of her fifth wedding anniversary. Nick comes home, she’s not there, the glass coffee table is upended and broken. So he calls the cops. He’s kind of dazed. Wooden. We find out later he’s been schtupping a writing student with the All-American name Andie Hardy (model Emily Ratajkowski, the “Blurred Lines” girl), and that morning he was ready to ask his wife for a divorce. So part of him is relieved by her disappearance. But he can’t show that. The casting of Ben Affleck—long accused of wooden acting—is itself a kind of joke. Later in the movie, for example, Nick is prepped by his top-flight attorney, Tanner Bolt (a surprisingly smooth Tyler Perry), before he goes on one of those awful Barbara Walters-like shows to confess his infidelity, and every time Nick acts wooden Bolt pelts him with a gummy bear. Directors from Michael Bay to Kevin Smith are probably going, “Now why didn’t I think of that?”
So on that first day, her parents, rich, privileged New Yorkers, Rand and Marybeth Elliott (a perfectly cast David Clennon and Lisa Banes), arrive in Missouri; and in the press conference in which Nick does everything wrong—acts wooden, mumbles a few words, smiles awkwardly next to his wife’s missing photo—they do everything right. They look grim and determined. They give out the 1-888 number they’ve already set up and the URL to the website they’ve already set up. They’re whirlwinds. It shouldn’t be funny—a woman is missing, after all—but it is. And it gets funnier as Nick drives around town and sees billboards displaying his missing wife’s face. How quickly his story becomes their story becomes everybody’s story. How quickly he becomes inconsequential.
Would it be less funny if we actually liked Nick and Amy? We get flashbacks to when they first meet, trading bon mots at a New York cocktail party, and it feels less “meet cute” than “meet awful.” They’re vaguely intellectual, fairly privileged, mostly shallow. He writes for a men’s health magazine, she writes ... where again? I forget. She’s more famous for being the inspiration for a series of children’s books, “Amazing Amy,” that her mother wrote. Plus she’s played by Rosamund Pike, who often projects a decided chill onto the screen.
“The hallmark of a sociopath is a lack of empathy,” says cable-news harpy Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle), implicating Nick in the disappearance of his wife, even if, ultimately, the description fits Amy more than Nick. And Ellen Abbott as much as Amy? She makes her living, and a good one, ruining lives with innuendo. Amy just accuses men of rape. Or “disappears” to get back at her dull husband and his infidelities. Or accuses them of rape, then murders them. That’s what she does with her longtime unrequited lover Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris), who protects her after her escape plans go awry. But he’s got the lack-of-empathy gene, too, doesn’t he? He loves her, he says, but when she comes to him in need, still in her dowdy, thickening camouflage, he immediately wants to turn her back into the golden girl she once was. It’s funny stuff. She’s still talking about Nick, whom she watches heartfeltly professing his (fake) love for her on national TV, while Desi, also professing his (real?) love, keeps implying she needs to work out more, eat less, dye her hair back to blonde. So many cross-currents of shallow agendas on display here. So little empathy behind so many professions of love.
Who does have empathy in this movie? How wide a brush should we use? And even when characters seem to have empathy—Amy’s parents, the dingbat neighbor Noelle (SNL alum Casey Wilson)—aren’t they just looking out for themselves? Or is this simply our ungenerous view of them? Or is the film being ungenerous?
The key line of the movie is the sociopath line above, the lack-of-empathy-gene, but it leads to this question: How do you lose empathy? Well, it helps if you demonize or reduce others, and the cable-news industry, in the movie and in real life, certainly does that. It demonizes Nick (into a callow murderer) even as it reduces Amy (into a pretty victim). But doesn’t the movie do the same thing? It gives us reductive characters like the dingbat neighbor and the shallow unrequited lover. I suppose that’s why it’s campy. That’s why it’s funny. It brings us laughs at the expense of lessons. But it also answers our question about how wide the sociopathic brush is. It’s so wide, “Gone Girl” paints itself with it. Giggling.
It’s also why I got bored. I lacked empathy for these reductive characters. I cared a bit about Nick, particularly when he was getting railroaded, and a little about his sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), who seemed like a real person. I liked Tanner Bolt and Det. Boney, both of whom seemed smart. But anyone else?
The ending is particularly disappointing and unbelievable. The more interesting characters go away—Bolt, Boney—while Nick winds up back in his marriage, trapped there by public opinion, but now with a woman he knows is capable of murder. The outward projection is of love and perfection, the inner version is hell. It should be chilling but it’s too silly for that. What’s missing is anything human-sized.
Movie Review: The Drop (2014)
Hardy plays Bob Saginowski, just another bum from the neighborhood. He tends bar at Cousin Marv’s in Brooklyn, buys drinks for the boys toasting a dead friend, lets the old woman on the corner stool run up a tab, and deals with the irascibility of Marv (the late, great James Gandolfini), who used to own the bar before Chechen gangsters took it over about 10 years earlier. He romances—kinda—Nadia (Noomi Rapace), a troubled neighbor girl, but mostly he minds his own business.
Both “Waterfront” and “Drop” have dark moods, a weight of the world, a sense of being trapped. The cops are no help and the church just reminds you of all the bad you’ve done. Even the actors are similar. Hardy’s hair, and his jacket, match Terry Malloy’s, and of course he exudes that Brando-ness (sans, here, raw sexuality). Rapace, the original ass-kicking Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, doesn’t seem an immediate fit with the virginal Eva Marie Saint, but they actually have a similar high-cheekboned look. And if you’re going to update Rod Steiger, who better than Gandolfini?
More to the point, the key relationship for both Bob and Terry is the older relative—brother Charlie, cousin Marv—and each relationship has a dirty history. Years earlier, favors were asked. Lives, maybe, were ruined. Maybe the asker doesn’t know it yet. Maybe he doesn’t want to know.
These are some of the similarities.
Here’s a key difference: We understand Terry sooner. He’s a bit of a bully—I think of Brando’s great sneer in the back of the church as Father Barry tries to organize the workers—but he’s redeemed by love and courage and by his conscience. But Bob? For much of the movie we can’t figure him out. He seems kinda nice, kinda dumb. But just how nice, and how dumb? Because he really seems dumb. He doesn’t know how to care for a dog? Does he even know how to read? Is he a pushover? Is there something in him? We get flashes of it, don’t we? When Detective Torres (John Ortiz) asks why he never takes communion at St. Rocco’s Church, which they both attend regularly, he responds, “That’s my business,” and something hard comes down over his eyes. At key points throughout the movie we get that: something hard coming down over the innocence and the dumb in his eyes.
Above all, he’s calm. Even when crazy Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts of “Rust and Bone”) enters Bob’s home, and stands there, smirking, dangerous, and demands his dog back—the dog Deeds had beaten and left in a garbage can, which Bob nursed back to health—there’s a calm in Bob’s manner and in his eyes.
And the question we ask ourselves, the question that propels us through the movie, is this: Is he calm because he doesn’t know any better .... or because he does?
The calm is welcome, by the way. This is one tense movie.
Cousin Marv’s is a drop bar for the Chechen gang, one of many, and one night two punks rob the place. “Do you know what you’re doing?” Marv says. “Do you know who’s money you’re jacking?” Soon after, the Chechens show up with a van and a guy in the back with his foot nail-gunned to the floor. “You know this guy?” they ask. Bob and Marv shake their heads, nervous. Blood drips onto the street like an oil leak. Later, based on a tip Bob was dumb enough (or smart enough?) to tell the cops about the stopped watch on one of the robbers, a plastic bag is hung on the fence in the back alley: it contains the stolen $5,000 and the watch ... still attached to the forearm. Now Marv looks even more worried. He should. He planned the robbery. Not for the $5,000—that was a test-run—but for the biggest haul of the year on Super Bowl Sunday. That’s the day we build towards.
Why is Marv doing it? We get a conversation with his sister in which he worries over expenses for his sick, bedridden father, but I don’t think that’s it. He resents his lost status in the world. Near the end of the movie, in his Archie Bunker chair and in that Tony Soprano whine, he tells Bob about the good ol’ days. “When I walked into a place, people stood up straight! They noticed. I was respected. I was feared.” He talks about the corner stool that used to be his. “That meant something!” he cries. Bob responds, as calm as ever, but a little more insistent, a little more cutting: “But it didn’t. Ever. It was just a stool.” It’s a great scene.
This is another difference with “On the Waterfront”: Terry Malloy’s resentment about where he wound up isn’t in Bob; it’s in Marv. Terry tells Charlie, “I coulda been a contender, I coulda been somebody,” while it’s Marv who tells Bob, “I was a contender, I was somebody.” Which is why he does what he does.
Bob? “I just tend the bar.” What about the Chechen gang? “I’m not this. And I’m not them.”
But he doesn’t just tend bar.
The original sin in “On the Waterfront” isn’t a murder, although we see enough of those; it’s the brotherly betrayal: Charlie telling his brother to take a dive against Wilson. It’s Cain going for the price against Abel. Terry’s life was never the same after that.
The original sin in “The Drop” also took place years earlier. But to discuss that properly, we have to go back to crazy Eric Deeds.
First, Schoenaerts is amazing here. Is there best supporting actor talk? For him or for Galdolfini? Or Hardy for best actor? There should be. For all three. There should at least be talk.
At first, we assume Deeds is part of the Chechen gang, tagging after Bob, making his life miserable. But he’s just an awful person. He likes fucking with people. There’s a palpable menace to him, and the fact that Bob doesn’t buckle under it is the first time we sense Bob’s strength—or his stupidity. But Deeds is too stupid, or too crazy, to realize that Bob didn’t buckle. He keeps at him. He wants the dog and the girl back. Yeah. He used to go out with Nadia but she broke free from him. He probably put the dog in her trash can as a final fuck you; instead it brought together Bob and Nadia.
A lot of the tension in the movie revolves around this pit bull puppy. He’s cute and helpless and we think something bad is going to happen to him, because bad things tend to happen to the helpless in gangster movies. The rumor is that Deeds killed a guy 10 years ago—“Glory Days,” whom the guys at the bar were toasting at the beginning of the movie—and if he can do that, what won’t he do? So Bob is trying to deal with all of this at the same time he’s trying to deal with Marv. Then his problems merge. The Chechens kill the stopped-watch guy, Marv kills the other (running him over brutally), so he needs someone else for the heist. He chooses Deeds. That’s who winds up at the bar on Super Bowl Sunday.
And here, beautifully, the movie shifts slightly on its axis and everything falls into place. Background information from the first act suddenly has meaning in the third.
The old woman on the corner stool? The mother of “Glory Days,” who was killed, not by Deeds (although he took the street credit), but by Bob. For Marv. That’s the original sin. That’s why Bob goes to St. Rocco’s every day and why he can’t take communion, and why he buys drinks for the boys and lets the old woman run up a tab. And that’s why he’s calm in the face of Deeds’ antics. He knows his rep is just that.
Here’s one of the things I love about this movie: The resolution to Bob’s troubles is as
we’d want it—a lone man using violence to achieve justice—but it’s not clean. In that moment of confrontation in the bar, something crazy is revealed in Bob’s eyes and in his manner, and he actually frightens Nadia away. He saves her only to lose her. Most movies give us this moment as cleanly as possible. Most Hollywood movies anyway. Does it help that “The Drop” not only isn’t Hollywood but it isn’t really American? Sure, Galdofini, and sure, the screenwriter is Denis Lehane, who wrote “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone.” But Hardy’s British, Rapace Swedish, and Schoenaerts and director Michaël R. Roskam are Belgian. They’ve made a thoroughly American movie in the most American of locales with a European sensibility. It’s one of the best movies of the year.
At the end we get this great monologue from Bob. It’s his “contender” speech, but less self-pitying, more hopeless:
There are some sins that you can’t come back from, you know? No matter how hard you try. You just can’t, you know. It’s like the Devil is waiting for your body to give up because he knows … he knows that he already owns your soul. Then, I think maybe, you know, there is no Devil. You die, and God, he says, “Nah … Nah, you can’t come in. You have to leave now. You have to leave and go away, and you have to be alone. You have to be alone forever.”
The way Tom Hardy says “Nah” in this scene. I go to the movies for moments like that.
Did Lehane and Roskam ruin it at the end? The redemption they give Bob? His reprieve and reconciliation? I might not have done it, but it doesn’t ruin it. “The Drop” is too good to ruin.