Michael R. Roskam’s latest character driven neo noir “The Drop” takes place in a cold and gloomy working class Brooklyn neighborhood. The kind of neighborhood where all business and justice is handled outside of the law. And kept within the neighborhood. The movie was written by crime author Dennis Lehane—adapted from his own short story “Animal Rescue”—and watching it you get the same sinister vibe characteristic of his other works such as “Mystic River.” His characters are usually deeply Catholic and by committing crimes they acknowledge they’re sinning but they also have their own set of moral codes and see their crimes as necessities. They do their dirty deed, accept their sin and let the dark secret be absorbed into the neighborhood mythology.
The people who inhabit “The Drop” are narrow-minded; they’re practically isolated from the rest of the world, the rest of the city even. They’re a tight-knit community, set in their ways. They don’t want things to change, they don’t want the “old neighborhood” to be developed or gentrified. This is familiar cinematic territory but Roskam—a Belgian director, who made the Oscar nominated “Bullhead” a few years ago—shows an impressive understanding and navigation of this wholly American environment. His transition from foreign-language filmmaking to English is seamless.
One of those narrow minded, set in his ways guys is the lonely bartender Bob (Tom Hardy) who works at a tavern run by his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini). The bar is owned by some shady people and oftentimes serves as a place for people perform illegal money drops. Even though he’s surrounded by seedy individuals and criminal activities on a daily basis, Bob doesn’t really want anything to do with crime. He doesn’t even come off as a tough or intimidating guy; instead he’s timid and non- confrontational. He’s handsome but definitely not charming or smooth. Very awkward and simple minded in some regards. He doesn’t want to cause any trouble; in fact when the tavern is robbed he helps the cops out by telling them that one of the robbers had a broken watch. That’s of course a no-no. He doesn’t appear to have much in the way of long-term goals or aspirations but seems perfectly content with being a lowly bartender.
Of course since this is Film Noir we know Bob’s going to run into trouble and that trouble comes in peculiar form: an abused pit bull puppy he happens to find in a trash can on his way home. The trash can belongs to the troubled recovering addict Nadia (Noomi Repace) but it’s not her dog so the two strike up a friendship and she helps him take care of it. However, before long Nadia’s unstable ex Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts, another Belgian who starred in “Bull Head” and does an uncanny American street accent. Something that’s hard to pull off) comes around causing trouble. (He’s the dog’s original owner.)
Thankfully, Roskam doesn’t linger on the animal abuse aspect of the story too long; he gives us just enough to gain our sympathies and then moves on without exploiting it any further. Animal abuse is one of the easiest, most manipulative ways to inspire an emotional reaction out of the audience.
Aside from being a way to thicken the plot, the puppy—later named Rocco—serves to further emphasize Bob’s non-criminal, non-intimidating attitude. Rocco is a symbol of innocence; a helpless creature abused and abandoned for Bob to come and rescue. (There are subtle allusions to St. Roch, the patron saint of dogs). Bob didn’t need to rescue Rocco, in fact he knows nothing about taking care of an animal but he chooses to because—despite his circumstances—he’s actually sensitive and gentle. And as the movie goes on Rocco becomes one of his only real friends and the only other character he can completely trust. In an otherwise dark, gritty movie it’s comforting to see such a touching and upbeat on-screen relationship and Roskam never lets the Bob-Rocco relationship become too sappy.
Once again, Hardy turns in a top tier performance. As good as he is at playing loud boisterous characters—in “Bronson” for example—he’s even better at playing introverted ones. Those are certainly more difficult to portray because he has to delicately and quietly lead us into the soul and psyche of the character instead of projecting their feelings and emotions out in the open, loud and clear. Hardy gives a powerfully understated performance.
“The Drop” also marks the last on-screen performance from the late Gandolfini and cousin Marv might be the most complex, tormented character he played on the big screen. Having portrayed the most memorable gangster on TV Tony Soprano, Gandolfini will always exert a macho exterior—part of that is also through his intimidating stature—but interiorly, Marv is a broken soul. We find out that he used to be a criminal but due to certain circumstances he gave it up and surrendered the ownership of his bar to gangsters. It’s left him defeated, emasculated and it leads him to do dishonorable things. Marv is a man who wishes he could have had more in life, a man full of regrets and Gandolfini plays him with the right amount of firmness and melancholy. Both Marv and Bob are softies more than anything.
Since “The Drop” is noir you can expect that the narrative become complex and murky. Though Roskam is more interested in developing the characters rather than focusing on the criminal activity. The crimes that are committed aren’t all that extraordinary, the real mysteries lie in the characters and their motivations; as it turns out Bob isn’t as innocent as he puts on and Marv has hidden agendas of his own. The movie can be a bit of a slow burn but at the same time there’s an overwhelming sense of dread and paranoia brewing just below the film’s surface, ultimately bubbling up during a tense climactic confrontation that had me biting my fingernails down to a stub.
There are a few issues with the picture, namely involving some of the supporting players. Repace does the best she can but her role is overshadowed by the men and the police detective Torres (John Ortiz) fails to make much of an impression beyond providing some important information at the end. “The Drop” isn’t revolutionary and it’s going to be a hard sell for the general audience but it’s also an expertly made crime movie. One that recognizes the value of characters and atmosphere instead of twists and turns.