Bullhead director Michael R Roskam makes his Hollywood debut with a slow-burning crime thriller featuring James Gandolfini’s final film performance.
Bob (Tom Hardy) is a slow-moving soft-spoken Brooklyn lug who works as a bartender for Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), who is, to people’s permanent surprise, actually Bob’s cousin. But while the sign over the door says ‘Cousin Marv’s’ really the cousins work for the scary Chechen mob brothers Chovka (Michael Aronov) and Andre (Morgan Spector), who use it as a drop for cash from their other operations. When someone is crazy enough to rip off the drop-box Bob and Marv find themselves under pressure from Chovka to recover the stolen money. Complicating matters further for Bob is his finding of an abandoned abused dog, which leads to a tentative romance with Nadia (Noomi Rapace). It also leads to harassment from neighbourhood psycho Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), the suspected killer in a cold case that has Det. Torres (John Ortiz) circling…
Having provided the source material for Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island, novelist Dennis Lehane finally pens his first feature screenplay (after writing episodes of The Wire and Boardwalk Empire) expanding his own short story ‘Animal Rescue’. This film has Lehane DNA: a palpable sense of blue-collar community, characters with lives beyond the plot-points; especially Marv’s tetchy house-sharing with his long-suffering sister Dottie (Ann Dowd); a doom-laden sense of horrors to come. But, somewhat inexplicably, it also has large amounts of Dead Man Down and Drive in its make-up. Noomi Rapace once again appears bearing scars of past traumas and manipulates a taciturn anti-hero. Shocking violence in a good cause is subverted in the best Winding Refn manner, and then sort of subverted back… There’s even a regrettable Equilibrium flashback in the instantly humanising effect of a puppy.
Roskam directs all this with some aplomb, with an emphasis on facial close-ups and gritty exteriors. Ortiz and Schoenaerts shine in support as the good and evil stalking around the central trio, with Schoenaerts in particular conveying tremendous menace and instability. An early scene where the Chechens unveil some grisly handiwork as a visual pep-talk serves up the steak that allows the film to largely unnerve on sizzle till its finale, to appropriate Stephen King’s analysis of Psycho, and Roskam lets the tension build slowly as Bob and Marv try and chase up some money only to find that events are spiralling out of control. Lehane holds back mightily on letting us inside Bob’s head, or letting us know what Det. Romsey (Elizabeth Rodriguze) is up to, as if he’s addicted to Shutter Island’s method of revelations through outrageous misdirection.
James Gandolfini’s last performance mixes resignation and frustration, and the film that houses it is a curious mixture of overly familiar elements and escalating suspense anchored by Hardy’s lumbering, kindly, but enigmatically unknowable presence.