By Kyle G. King. Coming off of Bullhead, an Academy Award nominee for 2011’s Best Foreign Language Film, Belgium director Michaël R. Roskam gives us his English-language directorial debut with The Drop, a crime drama about dirty bars and the crooked middle-men that work in them. Adapted for the screen by novelist Dennis Lehane from a short story of his own mind and pen, The Drop is Lehane’s screenwriting debut, one that takes us into a seedy neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, a departure from the Boston locale of Lehane’s original novelization. Though it certainly doesn’t lose any of the working class character or sordid backdrops in its relocation, it does offer Tom Hardy and company a less irksome local accent with which to attempt (an opportunity that Hardy takes on and soars as the center of the film).
In the opening monologue, Bob (Hardy) explains just how large quantities of money tend to change hands between crime lords over the course of a given night. Drop bars, like the one in which Bob works, are intermittently selected to stash money for holding and shipping. But how the money gets there and to who and where it’s going is hardly the focus of this piece. There have been plenty of movies dealing with big money and the criminals who bear claim to it. This movie deals with what is happening behind those curtains. The Drop is about simply that: the people who take the drop, not the people who run the money, steal the money, or spend the money; only the guys caught in between who are just smart enough to get the job done and keep their mouths shut. “I just tend the bar,” Bob calmly assures us, which you can feel in your bones is a stretch of the truth and only foreshadows the nature of a story where nothing is what it appears to be.
When we first meet Bob he is working honestly in his cousin’s bar. He’s in no real rush to take joy in serving people the liquid refuge that they ache for. He doesn’t talk much (his customers seem surprised when he does), but when he does open his mouth, he can hang you on every word and inflection with a gentle and slurring native New York dialect. Initially you peg him as slightly oafish and overall a non-threatening entity – even when he and his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini in his swan song performance) are robbed at gunpoint by two masked assailants, Bob simply puts his hands up and calmly stares down the man holding a shotgun to his face.
It’s astonishing how much Tom Hardy can do, even when he works without much dialogue. The relationship between Bob and Marv is very direct and businesslike: they simultaneously respect and annoy each other, which is exactly what you might expect from an uncle and his nephew in business together. Bob’s earnest temperament is almost a near straight-man routine to Marv’s and everyone else’s. Although the bar is indeed called Uncle Marv’s, Marv has lost any and all control of it and answers to Chokav (Michael Aronov), a no-nonsense leather jacket-clad Chechen crime lord who shows up the day after the robbery to flex his muscle. Bob is perfectly fine, keeping his head down and doing his job. But Marv, as a former head player in the neighborhood’s crime syndicate, now takes his orders with a stern face and a raised eyebrow especially when Chokav demands the recovery of the stolen money.
Things for Bob do eventually get even more complicated: while on his way home from work he finds among trash cans an injured and abandoned pit bull puppy. The puppy’s owner is anyone’s guess, but the trash cans belong to Nadia (Noomi Rapace), who storms out to demand Bob’s name and identification. She takes a picture of his ID and sends it to a friend, a move that swiftly proves she clearly doesn’t trust easy. But the puppy acts to lighten the tension between the guarded Nadia and a confused Bob, as well as a tool to further escalate their association with each other. (“Good-lookin’ dog”, Bob is continually told, as if the dog is a reflection of Bob himself: both appear to have a troubled history and both have a capability that shows more than they’re letting on.)
Eventually the dog’s owner presents himself as Eric Deeds (Bullhead’s Matthias Schoenaerts), a small time thug with a big mouth and a concerning history, both with the neighborhood and with Nadia. As the ominous situation develops, Marv and Bob find themselves in over their heads with the stolen money and the criminals that are attached to it. It’s easy to get bored with the standard shifts of power and testosterone in play, but where the movie sets itself apart from the normative is the unique character histories and developments. Sadly, Noomi Rapace doesn’t get much more of an opportunity than to showcase her subtle grace and prime ability to stare you down out of the corner of an eye. It’s the men who take center stage here: Marv sees an opportunity to regain some respect, even if he can’t completely figure out how to aptly benefit from it. For Bob and Eric, they struggle for possession of power, the dog, and Nadia.
While the movie has a fantastic slow burn and makes you ache to see somebody get punched square in the face, it falls flat when Bob’s two stories converge. On Superbowl Sunday – the biggest drop of the year – Cousin Marv’s might be the film’s apex, but the characters we’ve been so patient with don’t all pay off. Tom Hardy is so good though, that it almost doesn’t matter when Bob doesn’t completely remunerate your hope. But other characters seem to fall from full potential and purpose: the wonderful Ann Dowd (as Marv’s sister Dottie) gets little screentime and the investigating Detective Torres (John Ortiz) does little more than poke and peak around. Gandolfini does a respectable job with niche casting and an emotional farewell, but it is Hardy who shines and reverberates with you during and after, to a degree certainly worth the price of admission.