Faithful film adaptations of literary works are as rare as compelling movies about writers and writing, but here’s one that gets both right. Based on Bernard Malamud’s 1971 novel of the same name, Danny Green’s The Tenants is a bleakly funny, quietly harrowing exploration of the confluence of race, art, and privilege in pre-gentrification Brooklyn.
Essentially a two-character parable, The Tenants‘ story couldn’t be more elemental: Harry Lesser (Dylan McDermott), a moody writer, isolates himself in an otherwise vacant tenement to finish his latest novel. His progress is interrupted when Willie Spearmint (Snoop Dogg), a petty criminal intent on becoming a writer himself, sets up an office down the hall. Their brief, instantly volatile association underscores the gulf between black and white America in the early ’70s and beyond: Confrontational, race-obsessed Willie alternately antagonizes and flatters Harry, while the arrogant Harry patronizes Willie even as he co-opts his talent, his experience, and ultimately, his woman (Rose Byrne). A satisfactory middle ground remains tragically elusive. Stilted and gloomy as it sounds (and sometimes is), The Tenants gets by on its nimble approximation of Malamud’s robust prose, subtle turns of deadpan humor and gut-tingling menace, and remarkable performances. McDermott does credible work here, but Snoop’s casting is a stroke of genius: His sneering, wounded belligerence and disarming lack of affect make the character more than just a hapless doppelg and give the film’s potentially dry politicking a human dimension.
Malamud claimed that The Tenants “argues for the invention of choices to outwit tragedy,” and the ambiguous last line of Lesser’s novel, revealed in the film’s acerbic final shot, could be a disastrously deferred expression of such a choice or just one more solipsistic ego-stroke. In either case, the disturbing implication Green leaves us with is that art is simply another stage on which to exhibit our worst instincts.