Alibi V.23 No.37 • Sept 11-17, 2014 

Film Review

The Drop

Noted author Dennis Lehane tries his hand scripting his own slow-burn crime drama

“It’s a children’s book I’ve been working on. I hope you like it.”
“It’s a children’s book I’ve been working on. I hope you like it.”

The Drop

Directed by MIchaël R. Roskam

Cast: Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace

Tagged on to the quiet end of a roller-coaster summer at the box office is the slow-burn, gloom-and-doom crime drama The Drop. This little-hyped slice of East Coast anthropology is so humble it doesn’t even name-drop the impressive people behind or in front of the camera until the final credits roll.

But we can save you the wait. Yup, that’s increasingly chameleonic British actor Tom Hardy (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises) front-and-center trying on a mumbly Noo Yawk accent as Bob Saginowski, a soft-spoken, even-tempered mook working as a bartender at his cousin’s Brooklyn watering hole. Despite the fact that his name is above the door, Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini in his final film role) doesn’t actually own the bar anymore. He lost it years ago to some mobbed-up Chechens, hard guys to whom Marv owed way too much money. Now Cousin Marv’s serves as an occasional drop-off spot for ill-gotten gains, a gathering point for gambling profits, drug money, whatever filthy lucre percolates down though New York’s underworld in need of laundering. Some of the locals may suspect the truth, but nobody would dare rob the place. Those Chechens are some bad dudes.

Unfortunately, one night at closing time, a couple morons decide to knock off Cousin Marv’s. Fortunately, it’s not a night when the local gangsters have set up a major money drop. The robbers only get away with a few grand. But now Marv must repay the debt or face the business end of a power drill. Linked by the sort of loyalty that goes beyond blood, Bob tries to help out Cousin Marv. But even quiet, guileless Bob has his suspicions. Has Marv slipped back into his criminal ways? Is he foolishly formulating a way to rip off his Eastern European overlords?

The problem with our “hero” Bob is that he’s a soft touch. We sense this immediately. He’s the kind of guy who gives free rounds to the locals, lets old ladies smoke in the bar after midnight, leaves the Christmas decorations up a bit too long. Heck, he even rescues abused puppies out of trash cans. This particular bit of good guy-ism puts him in contact with a hard-luck waitress named Nadia (Swedish actress Noomi Rapace from Prometheus and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—also unrecognizable until the credits rat her out). The two bond over the abandoned pup and look like they might be heading toward something in the damaged-but-romantic range.

For the most part, The Drop seems happy to be a gritty, slice-of-life look at the seedier sections of modern-day Brooklyn. It would be a mistake to call The Drop a thriller. It’s not precisely. Directed by Belgian filmmaker Michaël R. Roskam (who gave us the edgy, Academy Award-nominated Bullhead), The Drop falls somewhere between the mythopoetic cinema of Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas) and the documentary-like work of Sidney Lumet (The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon). A lot of credit goes to the smart script from author Dennis Lehane (Shutter Island, Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone). The Drop is a savvy expansion of his short story “Animal Rescue.”

Like a Muhammad Ali fight, it spends a lot of time on the ropes, but it sneaks up on you in the end. Complications begin to pile up. We add a police detective (John Ortiz) sniffing around Cousin Marv’s while trying to solve a decade-old murder. We meet Nadia’s ex-boyfriend (Matthias Schoenaerts from Bullhead), a crazy-eyed drug dealer and serial puppy abuser. And there are always those trigger-happy Chechens lurking in the background. Before long Bob’s simple quest to help Cousin Marv out of a tough jam starts to look increasingly difficult.

For some viewers, the middle of the film might feel like it’s getting bogged down in a tangle of plot threads and characters. It requires some intelligence and some patience to keep them sorted out. But not to worry—they all come crashing together during one very bad Super Bowl night at the bar. The last 20 minutes of the film are filled with some almost unbearable tension, punctuated by several big shocks.

Lehane’s screenplay (his first, actually) is filled with realistic dialogue and clever twists. The direction is confident and pumped full of slowly mounting dread. The ensemble cast—from Gandolfini’s simmering bull-in-a-China-shop rage to the damaged-goods look in Rapace’s eyes—is impeccable. But it’s Hardy’s mesmerizing character work that really stands out. Poor Bob Saginowski is one of the most skillfully restrained, sympathetic-but-dangerous creations since Billy Bob Thornton’s Karl Childers in Sling Blade. Still, at the end of the day, The Drop is a small-scale, low-key work. It’s a short, brisk walk through a bad neighborhood. Your best bet is to enjoy the cold thrill while it lasts.