Politics & Policy

Working Class Goes to Hell: Drop and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

Once again, movies make a mess of class realism.

Another Dennis Lehane carnival of urban clichés, The Drop uses the story of a quiet, lonely Brooklyn barkeep, Bob Malinowski (Tom Hardy), who outwits the criminals, the cops, and the people around him, for a fable that is sinister, sentimental, ironic, and worthless.

Based on Lehane’s short story “Animal Rescue” (which became the intro to his novelization The Drop), the film belongs to the same trash heap as Hollywood’s other Lehane adaptations such as Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River. It transfers those Boston-based tales to New York, the epicenter of current miscreant mythology. It’s a confabulation of news media, publishing, TV, and Hollywood industries, where hardboiled fiction and urban crime are combined into cheap and trite storytelling (what the book industry calls thrillers) and has become a new dark brand of Americana.

From its opening voiceover narration, The Drop is both fake and familiar. Its characters are all woebegone: bar owner Marv (James Gandolfini), the scared and scarred abused girl Nadia (Noomi Rapace), and Bob himself, so emotionally recessive he thinks and speaks dull-wittedly and stumbles instead of walks — a plot device of slow-boiling rage. (Bob closely relates to the pitbull puppy he rescues.) The underworld subplot involving drop-offs for Chechan mobsters is a dismal, lazy way to deal with the contemporary social challenges and the seemingly inescapable beat-down of working-class life.

Alert, socially conscious viewers might trace Lehane’s genre to The Sopranos and its exurban offshoots, like New Jersey‘s Boardwalk Empire and Maryland’s The Wire (to which Lehane contributed), that twisted the gangster genre into a perverse, overly self-conscious version of social realism. These urban-crime tales excite viewers from the middle class to the underclass by pretending to show how rough today’s pitbull-versus-pitbull world can be. A bizarre form of gallows escapism, they simplify the gradual decline of our cities. It is the pretense of an author like Lehane to pinpoint corruption while also profiting from it.

This distraction from political reality indicts that entire entertainment complex that takes a sentimentalized (and half-understood) history of ethnic struggle that frequently includes criminality, such as Marv’s pathetic get-rich scheming, as the pattern of ethnic desperation. Lehane’s insipid moralizing offers psychological rationales: Americans like Bob, Marv, and Nadia harbor such horrors from their pasts that they have no recourse other than reprobate behavior — which Martin Scorsese’s hysterical film version of Lehane’s Shutter Island illustrated, as does the equally ludicrous The Drop.

Lehane’s popularity among filmmakers. from Clint Eastwood to Scorsese, points to an ongoing class war between out-of-touch professionals who have enjoyed class ascension and self-hating audiences who eagerly accept the worse view of themselves as if confronting hard facts of life. (Note Bob’s strange locution “That‘s unlike me” to explain or disguise an eccentric act.) This sham realism contains the usual indie-movie nihilism. One cop exclaims, “Well, I’ll be damned.” And his female partner responds, “Like you weren’t already.” It’s the same laughably literary conceit as in Cormac McCarthy’s “original” screenplay for Ridley Scott’s The Counselor. Cynics love this junk for its simultaneous wallowing in decadence (Bob’s local parish church is about to close), sanctimony (Bob’s chivalrous defense of Nadia), and self-pity (“You have to be alone forever,” Bob philosophizes).

The class condescension in The Drop has become such a cliché that even Belgian director Michael R. Roskam can imitate the Brooklyn miasma with the same fake fussiness as native son James Gray. This gloomy, hardboiled pathos exposes the filmmakers’ distance from their subject. When Italian director Elio Petri made The Working Class Goes to Heaven (also known as Mimi the Metalworker) in the early ’70s, the defense of lower-class struggle was part of Petri’s combined Communist critique and satire. Lehane sends the working class to hell out of Hollywood/literary pity. It’s nothing less than cultural decadence that should be obvious to anyone who doesn’t have an academic or industry stake in denying the problem. Imagine if the makers of The Drop had kept Lehane’s original title and honestly asked moviegoers to approve the symbolic treatment of their lives as animals?

***

Why would first-time feature director Ned Benson The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby allude to the title of a famous 1966 Beatles song and then deny an exploration into its meaning? That bad idea is a warning. So is the story’s confounding presentation. Benson’s tale of a broken marriage between once-blissful young parents Conor (James McAvoy) and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) started in two separate films, one subtitled “Him,” the other “Her.” This reviewer endured the remix, a third version subtitled “Them.”

McAvoy’s ornery petulance as the bratty son of a restaurateur and Chastain’s actressy traumatized daughter of a professor make an annoying, mismatched pair. This is the opposite of The Drop  , as both these affluent characters are meant to be envied, even in their exasperating, enervated struggle to find the companionship they lost. They suffer in luxe settings and among highly theatrical peers (William Hurt, Viola Davis, Isabelle Huppert) who seem signed on for narcissism (acting out one “heartfelt” confession after another) not truth. Here’s a different kind of class displacement — filmmakers who are so out of touch with the prosperity to which they have ascended that they falsify the terms of their apparent spiritual emptiness. Fatuous Benson, who treats Conor and Eleanor as teenagers, relates it all to a song — and it’s a song he doesn’t seem to understand.

When The Smiths updated “Eleanor Rigby” as “Vicar in a Tutu” (1986), the new song satirized a pre-millennial sense of spiritual isolation. Skepticism, tradition, impudence, and desperation were examined and then redeemed for a powerful and refreshed sense of identity. Challenging pop and religious heritage, and hearing its echo, the Smiths were also marvelously rooted to it. In The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Benson and cast seem unaware they are rootless.

— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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