There are a lot of good actors in Hollywood today. There are fewer great ones. And you can probably count on two hands Hollywood's true elite. They are the precious few who know instinctively how to take a close-up, who can do more with a look than with 10 lines of dialogue, who always, always have an interesting take on interesting characters.
The top-shelf few working in Hollywood today include Daniel Day-Lewis, Christian Bale, Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep.
It is becoming clear, however, that any such list would be incomplete without Tom Hardy's name on it. The British actor/chameleon might not boast the name-recognition of those other actors, and he might not have the Oscar nods -- yet. But he's every bit the actor as those others are. He proves that much (once more) in the snowy, gravelly crime drama "The Drop."
It was Hardy's eye-opening turn as a prison inmate in 2008's "Bronson" that put him on critics' radar. Then came his charming brute in 2010's "Inception," his musclebound psychopath in 2012 "The Dark Knight Rises," his terse, desperate businessman in this year's "Locke."
All four were distinctly different characters, but he was able to play each with an unquestionable credibility -- so much so that there might be those who don't even realize it's the same guy in all four roles. With "The Drop," he shows that we haven't yet seen the limits to his acting ability.
He plays Bob Saginowski, a Brooklyn barkeep who is about to find himself at the epicenter of a dangerous neighborhood power grab. From the minute we hear Hardy's voice introducing the film -- reedy, Brooklynized and a world apart from Hardy's own British accent -- he is utterly captivating.
His Bob exudes a quiet strength. He has to. His neighborhood is a tough one, filled with tough guys all out to prove themselves to somebody -- including, in many cases, to themselves.
The bar at which he works is ground zero for it all. It's named Cousin Marv's, after James Gandolfini's regret-ladened supporting character. In a sign of how cold and cruel the neighborhood can be, the bar -- despite carrying Marv's name -- doesn't belong to him anymore. That honor goes to the ruthless Chechen gang that wrested it from Marv years earlier, and for whom he and Bob now work.
It also happens to be a "drop" bar -- a repository of tens of thousands of dollars in dirty money generated by the Chechens' bloody business. Given that Bob works for the Chechens, his hands get necessarily dirty, but he's not one to argue with them. He does his job, he collects his paycheck, and he goes home to the cute house he apparently inherited from his mother or some other little old lady, doilies and all.
So, yes, he's a tough guy, but Bob is also kind of a sweetheart. He goes to Mass every morning, snow or shine. He's such a gentlemen with his new girlfriend (played by Noomi Rapace, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") that she's somewhat baffled by his lack of amorous aggression. When he finds a battered pit-bull puppy discarded in a trashcan his instinct is to pick it up and help it.
("Oh," he says absent-mindedly -- and maybe a little simple-mindedly -- upon discovering the puppy, "that's not good.")
He seems at least a little like a Brooklyn-born version of Lennie from "Of Mice and Men," if you substitute rats for the mice. Really, though, he's more like that pit-bull puppy than anything else. He's open to nuzzling, but he'll bite when cornered.
Yes, he might seem quiet and, when it comes to those brutal Chechens, even deferential. But beneath it all, he is cool, and he is calculating.
It's an unnerving blend for those who know him. When a severed forearm is left at his bar as a message from the Chechens, Bob wordlessly goes about wrapping it up in butcher paper and plastic wrap -- all weighted down with a wrench -- like he's done it a thousand times before.
Through it all, Hardy disappears entirely into the role.
He's helped by a well-written, if somewhat familiar, script -- penned by Dennis LaHane and based on his short story "Animal Rescue" -- about a felonious scheme centering on Marv's Place and, consequently, on Bob. Also helping, though, is the fact that director Michael R. Roskam ("Bullhead") seems to know exactly what he's got in Hardy. With the audience mesmerized by Hardy's remarkable performance, Roskam is free to rope-a-dope viewers, quietly setting the scene for a nicely played third-act payoff.
The movie will be remembered as Gandolfini's last major film, and the former "Sopranos" star turns in a fine performance, playing a sort of anti-Soprano, a bumbler who laments quietly to himself that he, too, coulda been a contender. He's joined by the intriguingly dark Matthias Schoenaerts ("Bullhead," "Rust & Bone") and Rapace, both of whom are also rock solid.
But, like Gandolfini, they seem to recognize that this is Hardy's show, and so they all step back and let his significant presence fill the screen.
Without Hardy, "The Drop" would be in danger of becoming just another crime drama. With him, though, it's something else entirely -- something alive, tightly wound and irresistible.
3 stars, out of 5
Snapshot: A character-driven crime drama about a Brooklyn bartender in a tough neighborhood who finds himself at the epicenter of a dangerous power grab. Based on the Dennis Lehane short story "Animal Rescue."
What works: Tom Hardy is fantastic in the leading role, propelling the film with a captivating blend of both gentility and understated ferocity.
What doesn't: The "mean streets" storyline -- while making the most of a nicely played third act -- isn't what you would call strikingly original.
Cast: Hardy, James Gandolfini, Matthias Schoenaerts, Noomi Rapace. Director: Michael R. Roskam. Rating: R, for some strong violence and pervasive language. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes. Where: Find New Orleans and Baton Rouge showtimes.
By the time The Blair Witch Project opened in Britain on October 22, 1999 there can hardly have been a film fan who was unaware of the extremely strange story behind its making.
Few are those who hadn't heard about the pair of Florida film school graduates who had persuaded three twentysomething actors to spend a week videoing themselves in the Maryland woods. Of how the two directors had repeatedly terrified the beleaguered trio in a successful attempt to capture real fear on their faces. And of how they expertly manipulated the internet to make the result one of the most successful horror flicks of all time. Indeed, when the film finally hit British screens several months after its American opening it could be argued that audiences here knew far more about the film than was good for them, and certainly anyone who hasn't seen it already would be better off rectifying that egregious situation before reading any further.
For The Blair Witch Project is one of those movies where ignorance is bliss — or, to be more accurate, terror. Ostensibly the last testament of a film crew who, as the opening credits inform us, disappeared off the face of the planet, the movie resembles a genuine documentary so closely it makes the likes of This Is Spinal Tap (1984) and Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) look like David Lean epics. Certainly it fooled many of those American college students who were shown the film prior to its release — the ruse in this case was aided by a profusion of apparently genuine "Missing" posters which sought information relating to the whereabouts of the supposedly long-lost youngsters.
Such screenings would help generate the positive word-of-mouth that real-life directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez knew was absolutely essential if their film was going to be a success. Certainly, its air of mystery was by far the film's strongest selling point — featuring, as it did, little in the way of stars, special effects or even competent camera work. Nor could the directors claim much of a cinematic track record. Indeed, their most high profile previous experience had been making videos to be shown inside Planet Hollywood restaurants. But the pair shared a love of 70s
horror flicks and decided to pool their meagre resources for a film that would attempt to recapture the visceral terror that they felt on first viewing William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) or Larry Cohen's It's Alive (1974).
"We were after complete realism," recalls co-director Sanchez. "We knew that if we did it with a crew it wouldn't work. From the beginning we wanted to do Blair Witch as an improvised film. We were basically going to leave the actors for certain amounts of time on their own, tell them what was happening and let them shoot it for a couple of hours at a time. Then we'd come back, review the footage and go on to the next scene."
What really put the project on a one-way track to Horrorsville, however, was the input of Gregg Hale — a onetime Special Forces sergeant who had previously worked with the duo on a portmanteau horror film called Black Chapters. "Gregg said, 'When I was in Special Forces training they put us through this POW camp scenario'" explains Sanchez. '"And after about two or three days of being in that camp surrounded by these guys hitting you, and yelling at you in Russian, and not letting you sleep, and hosing you down with water, you start to believe that it's really happening.' He said, 'You know, we could do this to the actors.' Dan and I were like, Yeah!"
So it was that a group of unsuspecting, unknown actors Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams and Joshua Leonard found themselves pretending to make a film about an ancient woods-dwelling witch while being genuinely terrified as the film crew deposited ominous-looking stick men in their path or played them tapes of children crying in the middle of the night. "We were the Blair Witch," says Myrick. "We had to get up at three in the morning and run around their tent. We had to hike through the woods to drop off directing notes. Then we'd review Heather's video tapes at the end of the day to see how it was reading on camera."
The end product, which was painstakingly hyped by both the distributors Artisan and the filmmakers' own website, would prove to be a genuinely unnerving cinematic experience. The film also produced 1999's most enduring image — the close-up of a wigged-out Donahue talking to her own camera as (and there's really no point in beating around the bush here) liquid snot poured out of her nose. "That was my own snot," laughs Donahue. "I've never done stunt snot in my life. I'm anti-glycerin."
Notorious inventiveness - both in its creation and marketing - shouldn't cloud The Blair Witch Project's other, more traditional horror qualities. It's a fright-fest.