Warning: This review contains some spoilers.
Michaël R. Roskam’s 2014 film The Drop features talent that is familiar to HBO viewers: Dennis Lehane (writer: The Wire, Boardwalk Empire), Ann Dowd (True Detective, Olive Kitteridge), and most notably, the late James Gandolfini in his final film role.
Adapted by Lehane from his own short story “Animal Rescue,” The Drop stars Tom Hardy as Bob, a soft-spoken man who lives in a rough Brooklyn neighborhood. Tom works as a bartender at Marv’s, and has little in common with the rowdy regulars who patronize the establishment. Bob also has little in common with Marv himself (Gandolfini), a man who is bitter due to the fact that he no longer owns the bar that bears his name. A decade ago, Marv lost the bar to Chechen mobsters, and he has since worked in a more administrative capacity, monitoring the money drops that local mobsters make at his bar for his Chechen bosses. Adding to Marv’s annoyance, Bob (his younger cousin) often treats locals to complimentary drinks, due to his soft-hearted, gentle personality.
One night, as Bob walks home from work, he hears a distressed puppy in a garbage can. He and the homeowner, a woman named Nadia (Noomi Rapace) discover that a pit bull puppy has been brutally beaten and left in Nadia’s garbage. Though he has never cared for an animal, Bob is immediately drawn to the puppy, which he names Rocco after the patron saint of dogs and falsely accused people (Bob is a regular at church). Rocco brings Nadia and Bob closer together, and this immediately draws the attention of a dangerous local thug named Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), infamous around town for having killed a guy named Richie “Glory Days” Whelan years ago. Deeds, Nadia’s ex, claims that the dog belongs to him, and that he can prove it. He proves increasingly more menacing as he breaks into Bob’s home. In the meantime, Bob also has to deal with the pressure of Super Bowl night, when a major drop will be made at the bar.
Though Lehane has worked on The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, which are centered on Baltimore and Atlantic City, respectively, he is most at home with Boston-based narratives (Gone, Baby, Gone and Mystic River are among his best-known novels). When it comes to present-day Brooklyn, The Drop doesn’t fly. In fact, Lehane’s original story was set in his native Boston. The nearly all-white, working-class, devoutly Catholic, football fanatic characters of The Drop don’t feel like New Yorkers at all (one can make a case that Nassau County should have been the film’s setting). When I watched the film, I immediately thought, “This is Boston.” Then I read the short story and understood that the narrative had been awkwardly transposed to New York. That may sound nit-picky (especially if you’re not from the Northeastern part of the states), but when a story tries so desperately to be true-to-life and raw and gritty, details like this really matter.
The film also functions on a barely-there logic. The Chechens are planning to use Marv’s bar as a drop on Super Bowl night because it was just held up recently. They buy into the Looney Tunes cartoon logic that if a plane crashes, that airline is the safest one to fly on the following day. That may be true for planes, but it sure as hell is questionable when dealing with vulnerable money drops. As if the holes in this plot line were not enough, Lehane does not give us any worthwhile dialogue to help the movie coast along. This is particularly egregious in the case of Gandolfini’s character, who spends the entire movie griping about the same thing, and inarticulately, at that. There is a short scene in which Marv’s sister tries to convince Marv to eat, and he says he already ate. That’s the whole scene. It reveals nothing new about Marv (we already know he’s a mean, unfriendly person), and it doesn’t serve to introduce his sister Dottie as a major character, since she practically disappears as the movie proceeds. In fact, Dottie serves no purpose whatsoever.
What does work in The Drop is the cast. Gandolfini does a spectacular job, despite the terrible plot line and dialogue that he is forced to deliver. Matthias Schoenaerts is genuinely menacing as the obviously unstable Eric Deeds. But this is Tom Hardy’s movie all the way. Hardy has to walk a fine line between being the kindest soul in town and being believable as the kind of guy who would survive in such a town. In the most overt way, this is conveyed when he takes in the puppy, but there are many more character-defining moments subtly sprinkled throughout. Where Deeds invades people’s private spaces, Bob respectfully hangs back when invited into Nadia’s home. When Bob walks her home at night, he makes no gesture to be allowed inside. On the flip-side, when confronted with severed human body parts, Bob doesn’t blink an eye. He is a man of contradictions, one who works from an internal logic and internal honor code that makes sense to him, though it may seem baffling to us. Hardy conveys Bob’s varied layers and secrets without ever calling attention to them. It is truly his performance, and the performances from the rest of the cast, that make the film worth watching. Well, that and the puppy. Never under-estimate how watchable an adorable animal can be.
The Drop premieres this Saturday (7/25) at 8:00pm ET on HBO and on all HBO platforms.