Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 46 min.
Our content ratings (0-5): Violence 8; Language 7; Sex/Nudity 4.
Our star rating (0-5): 4
Even though a person sins and gets by with it hundreds of times throughout a long life, I’m still convinced that the good life is reserved for the person who fears God, who lives reverently in his presence, and that the evil person will not experience a “good” life. No matter how many days he lives, they’ll all be as flat and colorless as a shadow—because he doesn’t fear God.
Ecclesiastes 8:12-13 (The Message)
In this film noir Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) lives in his dead parent’s Brooklyn house, attends an afternoon Mass at Saint Dominic’s, and is the bar tender at night at Cousin Marv’s (James Gandolfini) seedy watering hole. Marv once was a big man in the run down neighborhood as a loan shark , but then the Chechen’s moved in and took over all illegal activities. The film begins with Bob’s voice over, “Every night, a lot of money changes hands, the kind of money that can’t be reported but must go somewhere, and where it goes is to a ‘Drop Bar.’”
Bob is working the night when two masked thugs come in and demand all the money. This includes the $5000 that has been dropped off that night. When Bob asks if they realize whose money they are stealing, they pay no heed. The local police question the bar occupants, but no one is willing to talk. Detective Torres (John Ortiz) recognizes Bob as a fellow worshiper at St. Dominic’s. Observing that he never comes forward to receive the elements, he asks, “How come you don’t take communion?” Bob does not answer, though he does tell the policeman that one of the robbers was wearing a broken wristwatch—the time was stuck on 6:15. Marv later upbraids Bob for revealing this. He has violated the neighborhood survival code of utter silence in the presence of the authorities.
Chechen kingpin Chovka (Michael Aronov) and a henchman show up and demand that Marv replace the $5000. This will be a problem for the cash-strapped Marv, but when the Chechen opens a van and reveals his thugs brutally torturing a bound man, Marv gets the point. Even more gruesome later is a package that arrives, looking like a parcel of wrapped meat—only the meat is human, an arm with a wristwatch that has stopped at 6:15.
Even in this bloody tale there is a hint of redemption when, on his way home one night Bob hears a whimper and finds a pup, a pit bull with a bad gash on its head that someone has tossed in a trash can. As he picks it up the occupant of the house comes out. It is Nadia (Noomi Rapace), a waitress. She has no idea who put it there, but hesitant at first, she at last lets man and dog into her house so she can dress the pup’s wound. She cannot take it in, and Bob says he knows absolutely nothing about caring for an animal. Over the next few days she helps Bob shop for the dog and assists in training it. Interestingly, Bob names the dog Rocco. Earlier we had seen at St. Dominic’s a statue of the medieval saint, who once during an illness had been saved from starvation by a dog.
I suspect that Bob was familiar with that story: though blue collar, he apparently knows far more than the denizens of the bar or Marv. There is a telling scene early on when Marv swears, “F—–g Chechnyans,” and Bob corrects him, “They’re Chechens, not Chechnyans…. I think it’s like how you don’t call people from Ireland Irelandians.” Tom Hardy plays Bob as a mild mannered guy who usually blends into the background, keeping his head down. He is moved by the plight of the little abused dog and behaves like a gentleman around the shy Nadia. When Rocco’s legal owner Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts) shows up to demand $10 K for the dog, there is nothing heroic about Bob’s response to the thug. It turns out that Eric had also abused Nadia when they were going together, and it is at this point that another side of Bob begins to emerge. Eventually we learn why he has refrained from Confession and full participation in the mass.
By now you probably have heard that this is James Gandolfini’s last film. His Marv is from the same dark world as that of Tony Soprano, but dwelling at the bottom rather than the top of his world. There is a moving scene when he sits in a chair and reflects back to the days when he truly owned his bar and ruled his petty kingdom. . “I was respected,” he says to Bob. “I was feared. That meant something.” The scene is a bit like the sad taxi scene in On the Water Front when Marlon Brando’s ex-boxer Terry Malloy tells his brother, “I could have been a contender. We realize what a loss Gandolfini’s death is—and if it were not for the mesmerizing performance of Tom Hardy, would have been the main reason for remembering this film.
It is amazing that director Michaël R. Roskam is a Belgian and that this is his first English language film. All the details of the bar, the cluttered home of Bob (especially his brightly decorated (by his mom) kitchen, and the alleys of the city are picture-perfect. The director keeps us on edge throughout the film. Although the severed arm and the tortured man in the Chechen’s van are a bit jolting, the real violence, foreshadowed in a couple of scenes, erupts in a surprising way only at the climax. Screenwriter Dennis Lehane also deserves great credit in adapting his own short story “Animal Rescue,” moving the locale from Boston to Brooklyn. As so often in film noirs, the tarnished neighborhood is an integral part of the film, its deterioration mirroring that of the characters. This dark story of people who have lost their souls could not have been made in the old days when the Hays Code dictated that every crime movie must unambiguously teach that “Crime Does Not Pay.” The author of the passage from Ecclesiastes might find his faith challenged by this film and the cold-blooded way in which justice is served. You will be left with plenty to think about and discuss long after leaving the theater!
The review with a set of discussion questions will be in the October issue of Visual Parables.