A dark and gritty mystery/morality play that gives a lesson on building suspense


TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains technical content perhaps of interest only to creative writers and may induce sleep in normal people. 

Yesterday, at the Tropic Cinema here in Key West, I saw “The Drop,” based on a story by mystery writer Dennis Lehane, who also wrote the screenplay. Dark, humorless and intense, it depicts a Brooklyn neighborhood–peopled by failed thugs, Chechen gangsters, and other damaged human goods–that most of us would never glimpse. But what interested me most as a writer—and as a mystery writer, as I have recently been reborn—was how the suspense was created.

It was not done via dramatic irony—a common plot device where the audience knows more than the characters, for example, when we understand that the murderer is hiding in the cupboard with a butcher knife as the protagonist reaches for the doorknob to fetch a spatula. Nor was it done with astounding reversals, fight scenes, car chases, or a ticking clock. Rather the film employs the slow, deliberate release of exposition, in this case, knowledge of the characters’ pasts and entwining history. Lehane’s screenplay gives out information grudgingly, at a meandering pace—holding back, holding back, and director Koskam lets the those moments breathe, so we can absorb and register the growing portent of that piecemeal information. It builds and builds, brick by brick, to construct a solid and gratifying narrative at once surprising but also with precise logic and plot causality.

And, as with good exposition in a novel, this comes obliquely, in dialogue that on the surface purports to tell us something else or answer an unrelated question. Subtext is everything here, and much of the suspense comes from reading between the lines. The actors respect that, not hamming it up or declaiming important information, but deadpanning it, just as good fiction writers do—that is, respecting the audience or reader, giving them the credit to be able to figure things out on their own without leading them by the nose. Writing good prose fiction is akin to an actor making you forget he is an actor: You want the words to disappear so the reader forgets that he or she is being manipulated by an author and falls into the dream of the story. At least that’s the way I try to do it.

By the way, “The Drop” is actor James Gandolfini’s last film, after his last supper in Rome on June 19, 2013.

You can watch the trailer here: http://www.thedrop-movie.com.