Cast: Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace, Matthias Schoenaerts, John Ortiz
Director: Michael R. Roskam
Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Tom Hardy slouches his shoulders, mumbles, and bonds with an abandoned dog in The Drop, the latest gritty crime drama from writer Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby, Gone) and Belgian director Michael R. Roskam (Bullhead). It's a film that takes place inside seedy Brooklyn bars, grungy alleyways, and lonely apartments, all with the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge looming overhead. It's got a crackerjack cast; which, aside from master thespian Hardy, includes James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace, John Ortiz, and Bullhead star Matthias Schoenaerts. As written by Lehane, it has a lived-in believability and understanding of mundane neighborhood business. It's the kind of film so rarely made anymore; a crime thriller that prizes characterization over action, atmosphere over heavy plotting, intimacy over expansiveness. It's also, to get back to Hardy's character Bob Saginowski, a dim-witted bartender who still lives alone in his deceased parent's house, got a case of bi-polarity in wanting to both demonize and provide redemption for people who seem genuinely beyond saving.
The main thing The Drop has going against it is a sense of familiarity. Stories about broken-down lowlifes using a friendly neighborhood bar as a cover for money laundering and all of the mobster-like criminality that this entails is a tried and true setup that at this point offers few legitimate surprises. That there are some surprises in The Drop comes down to the way Lehane structures his story from the inside out, making the audience feel at home with seemingly undesirable characters as they leisurely go about their business. Roskam, meanwhile, creates a sense of place by directing most scenes unhurriedly, creating the sensation that violence lurks at the edges of almost every encounter, and his actors mostly follow suit with convincing portrayals. The story follows Bob, who works for his cousin and employer Marv (Gandolfini) at the local dive, as he moves around unmarked envelopes stashed with cash for Chechen gangsters who rule the town. During a pivotal scene, two masked intruders rob the bar and get away with a significant amount of money; money that the Chechens are none too pleased to see go missing. The Drop handles these early moments intimately, refusing to go into some vast criminal empire or conspiracy behind the holdup, and shows the strain the robbery has on both the business as well as Bob and Marv's fragile relationship. Of course, there's the aforementioned abandoned puppy Bob finds in a garbage can, a possible romantic interest (Rapace), a strong but damaged woman whose also conveniently has veterinarian training, as well as the appearance of a deranged thug (Schoenaerts) who shows up claiming the dog belongs to him while making idle threats.
At it's heart, The Drop is an exercise in pulp entertainment, only the entertainment is more of the slow-burning variety and the plot never really hinges on rote twists and turns, though it does have a few toward the climax. More than anything, the film seems to be about masculinity, or in Bob's case, a sense of displaced masculinity adrift in a world ruled by male posturing, hard drinking, and wanton violence. Bob is kind of a puppy dog himself; with a droopy face, hunched shoulders, and a waddling gait. Hardy, an intensely talented actor, plays the character almost like an idiot savant crossed with Marlon Brando; soft-spoken, not too bright, fiercely loyal to his cousin, and prone to fits of muttering. It's an acting method Hardy has used before, most notably in Lawless, where he portrayed a dimwitted hillbilly whose dialogue was mostly unintelligible. His knack for Brando-esque naturalism also extends to his recent role in Locke, a film that takes place entirely inside a car and places Hardy front and center. Here, it almost seems as if Hardy is trying too hard to make Bob as idiosyncratic as possible, with distracting tics and odd reactions. Despite his commitment to the role, Bob is never that believable as a flesh and blood bartender living in New York City, and more often that not, Hardy's mannered performance plays like a method acting exercise. Gandolfini, in his final role, fares much better as Marv, whose fatherly tenderness is often interrupted by flashes of aggression and paranoia. Watching Gandolifini do a variation on the type of roles he's been saddled with since The Sopranos is bittersweet in that it's a very good piece of acting, but also feels overly familiar. Still, he provides the film with much needed doses of heart and humor. The movies will inevitably be a sadder place without him.
As arguments intensify between the key players involving turf, personal honor, and the issue of that missing cash, The Drop narrows it's scope regarding displaced masculinity and becomes, in it's final third, a more standard gangster crime thriller. Once things come to a head and violence erupts, the film loses some of it's more interesting aspects, which includes Bob's sense of Catholic guilt (he attends Mass every Sunday, but never takes communion), while his relationship with Rapace's character takes a dive toward the maudlin. Though the bloody climatic scene inside the bar is well staged and ties in some thematic elements involving Bob's wounded insecurity, it's also somewhat disappointing that Lehane has taken so much time building his story through ambiance and character specifics only to bow to convention. The film's ill-judged coda, meanwhile, seems to take everything we've just witnessed and offer it's damaged characters an unconvincing way out. If read literally, The Drop ends up being the worst of all possible redemption stories; the kind of ludicrous writer's endgame that comes directly after moments of dead-eyed evil. The film should have been about the way's masculinity can be misrepresented and distorted in order to justify violence, with characters accepting their fate, doomed to live in the shadows. Unfortunately, the film bungles it's final moments in order to rush out a typical Hollywood happy ending, and Hardy, clutching that cute puppy in his arms like a ham-fisted metaphor, can only smile in relief that the filmmakers have let him off the hook.