Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones


In A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES it’s been eight years after Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) was involved in fatal shootings as an off-duty detective for the New York City police, but the former cop still seems haunted by that day in 1991. Although he was honored for his service, Scudder chose to retire from the force and get sober. Now working as an unlicensed private investigator, he’s found no peace in the intervening years but has lost all fear, which comes in handy for his line of work.

His latest job offer comes via fellow Alcoholics Anonymous attendee Peter Kristo (Boyd Holbrook), whose drug-trafficking brother Kenny (Dan Stevens) requires Scudder’s particular set of skills and anonymity. Kenny’s wife was abducted the day before. Her captors demanded a million dollars, a price determined by what she would be worth if her weight translated to the same value of Kenny’s drugs. Kenny tells them that $400-thousand is the best he can do and pays up, but he gets her back in pieces in neatly bundled packages as though she were product. As Scudder looks into the case, he discovers a pattern that indicates some men are killing women with ties to the drug world and won’t be stopping any time soon.

The new millennium looms like storm clouds on the horizon in A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES. A newspaper headline warns of increased gun sales in anticipation of societal breakdown when Y2K arrives. Scudder rejects learning new technology. Instead he sticks to pay phones and microfilm as though he expects the world will be abandoning mobile communications and computers just a few short months from now. The film’s brown and gray visual palette casts a funereal air over the city as Scudder dutifully searches for the perpetrators in these heinous crimes. The gloomy lighting suits a character who does not see himself as brave or righteous but rather someone burdened with atoning each day for his own shortcomings.

Neeson has enjoyed renewed success playing unsparing tough guys. Unlike the limbs-snapping enforcers that have become his stock in trade, Scudder soldiers on as a world-weary detective who will plant a knife in someone’s neck if necessary but would rather not if all things are equal. Neeson wears Scudder’s guilt and transgressions as a hair shirt. He brings determination and resigned joylessness to the hard-boiled character adapted from Lawrence Block’s novels. The grim investigation threatens to become more complicated than necessary for a film in which reasons for the killing are largely irrelevant, but Scudder remains a compelling central figure trying to brighten the world a little even if he’s convinced his life remains in the shadows.

Whether accounting for films or television, popular culture has no shortage of entertainment that hinges on villains torturing and murdering women. A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES mostly avoids going into graphic detail and exploiting the horrible crimes exacted on women yet in doing so brings the heinousness of such actions into clearer view. The opening credits sequence

Grade: B

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Drop

THE DROP (Michaёl R. Roskam, 2014)

In THE DROP Cousin Marv’s Bar in Brooklyn looks like any number of neighborhood establishments, but it’s also one of the designated places where crime bosses may choose to have the night’s collected cash dropped off for safe keeping. Marv (James Gandolfini), the owner in name only, and bartender Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) never know when their workplace will be the drop bar. Someone is wise to the system, though, when two masked men with inside information hold up the place on an evening that Cousin Marv’s is appointed to receive all the dirty money. The thieves get away with five thousand dollars.

The Chechen mobsters who really own the bar consider Marv and Bob to be obligated to compensate for the loss if the stolen cash isn’t found. Bob has trouble on other fronts too. Detective Torres (John Ortiz), who is investigating the robbery, suggests he’s keeping tabs on Bob by remarking that he recognizes him from 8 a.m. Mass services and has noticed he never takes Communion. Bob finds some relief in the pit bull puppy he rescues from a garbage can and Nadia (Noomi Rapace), a waitress who warms up to him after seeing his gentleness with the dog. Still, the good comes with the bad, in this case in the form of Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), an unstable thug rumored to have killed someone ten years earlier. He has connections to Nadia and the pit bull and tries to intimidate Bob into leaving both behind or paying Eric to go away.

Hardy does nice work showing Bob choose the path of least resistance through his rough environment while avoiding seeming like a pushover. In the rare sections he narrates his mush-mouthed voiceover echoes Linda Manz in DAYS OF HEAVEN, as though he’s of and outside the mean world he landed in. Bob is a quiet guy who likes to say he just tends the bar as he attempts to maintain a low profile. Patrons at Cousin Marv’s describe him as Sphinx-like. Bob doesn’t consider himself an active player in the criminal doings around him, but he’s embedded in that world regardless of what he contends his role, or lack thereof, to be in it. Hardy softens his voice as Bob and carries himself in a non-threatening manner, yet he transmits a sense that he’s a dangerous guy despite his demeanor. When a severed arm is delivered to the bar, he wraps it up like a butcher packaging a roast and discards it as though it’s meat that’s turned rancid. He doesn’t amplify conflicts with his antagonists but doesn’t seem cowered by such interactions either. Bob has apparently consigned himself to a lifetime of loneliness, although the reasons for his decision aren’t immediately clear.

Screenwriter Dennis Lehane adapts his own short story for THE DROP, cramming the film full of the kind of local color and details one would expect from a crime novelist. Gradually it becomes evident that the community’s flavor and performances are what THE DROP has going for it at the expense of a satisfying story that dribbles along. Somehow the plot feels padded out and yet insubstantial. Watching THE DROP is like getting a diet soda when expecting the sugary version. It approximates the calorie-laden drink while being distinctly off enough to want something richer.

That sense of something missing is most noticeable when THE DROP ties together all of the loose ends. One revelation lands hard, but another misses due to the tangled build-up to its conclusion. The final scene plays at odds with much preceding it, wrapping THE DROP with a happier ending than one that it seemed to be pointing toward and deserved.

Grade: C+