★★★ (out of 5 stars)
Crime writer Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island) has taken his short story Animal Rescue and turned it into a modest, slow-burn screenplay that’s more about revealing its central characters than spinning a compelling yarn, which is certainly no sin. Hollywood rarely takes the time to surprise us anymore with complicated protagonists or motives. But when the setting and players are as familiar as the regulars at Cousin Marv’s, the mob-controlled Brooklyn neighborhood bar in The Drop, you can be forgiven for hoping the celebrated novelist would give us a little something more.
When we first hear Bob Saginowski’s reedy outer-borough voiceover, it seems almost impossible to believe the words are coming from Englishman Tom Hardy’s lips. Coming off his tour de force performance in Locke, the actor convincingly disappears into another unlikely role, capturing the soft-spoken, seemingly dull-witted cadences of the bartender of a neighborhood joint that is just one of many cash drops for the Chechen mob. Using a ruse screenwriting workshops claim will make a protagonist more sympathetic, we meet Hardy’s character as he rescues an abused pit bull puppy from a garbage can on his way home from work. This introduces him to waitress Nadia (Noomi Rapace), who convinces him to adopt the adorable pup. Their attraction is obvious but neither is particularly trusting ... or loquacious, for that matter.
Bob works for his cousin, Marv (James Gandolfini, in his final film role), a mob never-was who lost his bar to the Chechens 10 years ago and now lives with his sister and struggles to make nursing-home payments for his ailing father. When the joint gets held up, the Chechens come calling for their five grand. Meanwhile, Nadia’s abusive and creepy ex, Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), starts insisting Bob’s new dog is actually his. These two complications set everyone on course for an inevitably violent confrontation.
When Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam (Bullhead) isn’t busy composing arty compositions, he does a pretty good job of simmering the various plot strands and evoking the just-getting-by lives of Lehane’s weaselly cast of characters. There’s a pleasantly dry and understated black humor to the film, both in the scripting and direction. Roksam has a confident, almost bluesy style. But multiplex audiences might grow impatient with his preference for wounded male psyches over mobster story mechanics, as The Drop’s conflicts, betrayals and clashes end up being in line with any of a dozen crime films. The movie is more kindred to David Mamet’s American Buffalo than Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.
Still, no matter how predictably the plot unfolds, Roksam’s cast mesmerizes. Rapace turns in first-rate work while Gandolfini ends his career on a high note. As the defeated and desperate Cousin Marv, a man nursing a decade-long blow to his ego but no real wisdom about how to deal with it, he’s so far down the food chain from Tony Soprano that his criminal schemes, as they are revealed, seem more pathetic than inspired.
But it’s Hardy and his deceptively placid Bob that is the main attraction here. This is partially because Lehane’s script really has no other tricks up its sleeve and partially because the actor keeps us guessing about what lurks beneath Bob’s gentle yet watchful exterior. When the truth is revealed, it’s as brutally authentic as it is morally complicated.
The Drop is the kind of movie audiences slowly discover rather than flock to. It’s not special enough to demand attention but it’s certainly solid enough to warrant consideration. What it mostly does is remind critics like me of the depressing state of Hollywood films. The Drop is not special for what it does but rather for what it is – a character crime drama with no action set pieces or A-list action stars to drive its box office. Once a staple of the multiplex, films like these delivered reliably solid if unspectacular entertainment with the occasional authorial flourish or star-making performance. In the age of multinational studios, however, its genre is a threatened species. Without pixelated pyrotechnics or monosyllabic dialogue to play in China and Southeast Asia, Lehane’s throwback stands out most for its lack of spectacle.