Lonely and laconic bartender Bob Saginowski’s life seems to take a turn for the better when he finds a wounded puppy in a trash can in the yard of a woman named Nadia. He adopts the dog and begins a very cautious and tentative relationship with the woman as well as the dog. It seems that he, Nadia, and the dog are all wounded animals who need a lot of time and space to trust anyone new in their lives. It’s no coincidence that the Dennis Lehane short story from which The Drop was adapted was called “Animal Rescue.”
Watching Bob and Nadia together, it’s hard not to think about Rocky Balboa and Adrian, or Brando’s Terry Malloy with Eva Marie Saint’s Edie Doyle in On the Waterfront. It’s the same old tough guy with a soft heart stepping carefully around damaged feminine novelty. Add to that the incredibly manipulative ploy of the cute wounded puppy, and put both the girl and the puppy in danger, and it sounds like The Drop is a mishmash of the hackneyed and the mawkish that might make for a mildly entertaining but forgettable couple of hours if you were in the mood for a dark crime drama some evening.
But wait. It turns out that the film’s somewhat clichéd premises are far more complex than they first appear, and as strata of story and character are peeled away slowly, layer by layer, as the film develops, the artistry of Lehane’s script, Michaël R. Roskam’s direction, and Tom Hardy’s brilliantly understated performance as Bob turn what could have been a so-so film into a memorable cinematic experience.
Lehane, whose novels Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island have made highly successful films, and whose T.V. work on The Wire and Boardwalk Empire have prepared him for the crime-drama film genre, begins The Drop with the premise the throughout Brooklyn are certain “drop bars,” one of which is designated periodically to receive all the mob’s cash for that particular week. The designated bar shifts randomly in order to prevent anyone from getting ideas about pilfering those millions. Bob, who insists throughout the film that he is only a bartender, works at a bar called Cousin Marv’s, a drop bar once owned by Bob’s actual cousin Marv (James Gandolfini in his last feature-film role). Marv, who still runs the place, was forced to transfer ownership of the bar to the Chechan mob eight and a half years earlier—a situation that continues to rankle him.
The action of the movie is triggered when Cousin Marv’s is robbed of $5,000 and the Chechen mobsters imply that Marv will be held responsible if the money is not recovered. In a parallel plot, the new puppy’s former owner, a frighteningly psychotic figure believed to be responsible for a ten-year-old murder in the neighborhood, begins stalking Bob, and it gradually starts to look as if that unsolved decade-old murder is in some way connected to the current problem at Marv’s bar.
The complexity of the characters makes this movie more about character than plot, however. And stellar performances by the film’s chief characters make us care about the people they portray. “We all have our secrets,” Bob says at one point, and that is revealed consistently as the plot progresses. Why, for instance, does Bob attend 8 a.m. every morning—and why does he avoid taking communion every time? Gandolfini, as the mob-connected bar owner (not a great stretch for Tony Soprano), earns our sympathy when we learn how difficult it is to keep up with the payments that keep his comatose father on life-support month after month. Nadia (played by Swedish actress Noomi Rapace, best known as the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), makes us wonder why her self-esteem dropped so low that she took a potato peeler to her own throat. There is even some depth to the psychotic stalker, Eric, played with subtle precision by Belgian actor Mattias Schoenaerts (who starred in Roskam’s 2011 film Bullhead, nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar that year).
But for the most part, the questions about Marv, Nadia, and Eric go unanswered, and this is one of the flaws in the movie, since we are left wondering about so many things, But the film belongs to Bob, and Hardy’s performance wins our sympathy and to some extent our affection. We think we know what motivates him. We think we know what troubles him. But there is something off about him and we can’t be sure just what it is. And Roskam’s direction ensures that, after two or three unforeseen developments along the way, the final and devastating plot twist comes as a shock, but not really a surprise. It seems perfectly consistent with Bob’s character from the beginning.
So here’s why you should see this movie: 1) Tom Hardy is certainly one of the best actors to appear on the scene in the past five years or so, with turns as varied as Eames in Inception (2010), Forrest Bondurant in Lawless (2012), and Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), and he does not disappoint as Bob; 2) James Gandolfini’s last big role is worth seeing. While his performance here is not as memorable as his brilliant turn against type in last year’s Enough Said, he is wonderful as the heavy that you can’t quite completely hate; 3) Lehane’s script has enough twists and turns to keep you guessing throughout; and 4) Belgian director Roksam, who burst on the scene with his 2011 Oscar-nominated Bullhead, here directs his first American full-length feature. He creates a noir-like atmosphere of Brooklyn at its grittiest. As a debut film it shows the promise of great things to come, and should make people eager for his next film, The Tiger, a thriller with Brad Pitt due to be released later this year.