(2014) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini, Matthias Schoenaerts, John Ortiz, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Michael Aronov, Morgan Spector, Michael Esper, Ross Bickell, James Frecheville, Tobias Segal, Patricia Squire, Ann Dowd, Chris Sullivan, Lucas Caleb Rooney, Jeremy Bobb, James Colby, Erin Drake. Directed by Michael R. Roskam
In an environment where crime is rampant and vicious ethnic gangs control the everyday goings on in the neighborhood, looking the other way becomes a necessary survival skill. Some things however cannot be looked away from.
Bob Saginowski (Hardy) tends bar at a neighborhood Brooklyn joint called Cousin Marv’s. There is a Cousin Marv (Gandolfini) – who is actually Bob’s cousin as it turns out – who lets Bob do much of the work around the bar. Bob is an industrious sort but is a bit dim-witted and socially awkward, but he’s a lot more street smart than you’d think. He realizes that Cousin Marv doesn’t own the bar that bears his name – Chechnyan mobsters do. And the bar is sometimes used as a drop for their ill-gotten gains.
Shortly after Christmas, two things happen. A couple of losers try to rob the bar, which puts Marv in the hole $5,000 to Chovka (Aronov), the charming but vicious mobster whose father is in charge of the whole show. Marv and Bob need to find the guys that robbed the bar but fast; what happens if they fail to do so is demonstrated to them rather forcefully.
On his way home from work a couple of nights later, Bob finds a pit bull puppy that’s been badly beaten in the garbage can of his neighbor Nadia (Rapace). She holds onto the dog for a few days while Bob dithers whether or not to keep the dog; he ultimately decides to and as Nadia needs some extra cash, she agrees to watch the dog while Bob’s at work. An awkward, halting romance ensues.
Into the picture comes Eric Deeds (Schoenaerts), a psychopath who rumor has it murdered a pothead named Glory Days about ten years earlier after he’d left Cousin Marv’s to score some weed (the film opens up with a ten-year memorial tribute to the guy by his friends who are regulars at the bar). He is the actual owner of the dog (and responsible for its injuries) and also happens to be Nadia’s ex.
There are a number of twists and turns involving a plan to take the mob’s money on Super Bowl Sunday, one of the most profitable days of the year for illegal sports gambling, and Bob’s budding romance with Nadia. There’s also an inquisitive cop (Ortriz) who thinks there’s a lot more going on at Cousin Marv’s than an ordinary robbery and Deeds threatening Bob – he wants him to stay away from Nadia and give him back his dog, or at least pay him for it. It seems like all the walls are closing in on Bob and he’s caught in a dangerous situation where a wrong move can get him killed.
I get the sense that Roskam – who directed the fine Oscar-nominated drama Bullhead – was going for a vibe not unlike early Scorsese a la Mean Streets. You get the tight-knit aspect of the neighborhood quite nicely and you get the overwhelming influence of the criminal element on everyday life. People don’t talk to the cops around there, and they don’t trust them all that much either.
This is definitely an actor’s movie and all of the lead roles are in capable hands. Gandolfini hits it out of the park as Cousin Marv, a man who once led his own crew and in his own words, “I was respected. I was feared. That meant something.” However, when the Chechnyans moved in, Marv in Bob’s words “blinked” and lost the bar, becoming Banquo’s ghost in his own establishment, Gandolfini gets the seething resentment under the surface of the hangdog expression that is perpetually on Marv’s face – he’s not the sort who cracks a smile often or easily.
Rapace, who burst out of Sweden in the filmed versions of the Millennium trilogy, is still trying to break through to American audiences. She shows how talented she is as Nadia but it’s not a role that has a lot of meat on it; Nadia has been through far too much and bears too many scars to allow much to show. Rapace makes us believe that there’s a lot more to Nadia than we can see; it’s masterful work but it isn’t the kind of thing that gets one noticed in Hollywood.
Hardy, however, definitely is getting noticed. This is his second really amazing performance this year and the two roles are completely different. Although most people think of him as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, he is actually much more of a complete actor. When you look at the wide range of roles he’s undertaken in recent years – romantic comedy foil, quiet emotionally stunted businessman, charismatic criminal, rural gangster, MI-6 whistleblower – it’s a resume which gets more impressive with every movie he makes.
While the plot isn’t particularly astounding, the ending did grab me by surprise. I like also that Lehane and Roskam deliberately left things ambiguous at the end, which I think added a lot to the movie. There are a lot of subtle little touches too – the Schoenaerts character’s name is something of a clue to an important plot point and you won’t get it until after the movie’s over (I won’t spoil it by telling you how). And that dog is just so damned adorable.
It is the nature of all things to be circular; as one great performer leaves us, another emerges. The sting of the loss of James Gandolfini, who as Tony Soprano delivered one of the greatest characters in television series history is mitigated somewhat in that his final performance, as this one is, may well be one of his finest. It is also comforting to know that as Mr. Gandolfini is gone, Tom Hardy is emerging to be one of the best actors in the world. With his performance here and in Locke he has cemented 2014 as his breakout year. This is a strong effort right up there with Mystic River, the movie Lehane is best known for Hopefully you’ll get an opportunity to catch this while it’s in your local cinemas – it’s much better than most of the other films out there.
REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by the leads. Nice twist. The dog is adorable.
REASONS TO STAY: Definitely a few Brooklyn cliches.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly rough language as well as violence, some of it pretty strong.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on Lehane’s own short story “Animal Shelter” (and was originally entitled that) from the Lehane collection Boston Noir. Like most of Lehane’s work, the short story was set in Boston but the setting was moved to Brooklyn.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Last I Heard
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10