It’s always amazing to observe the temporal reductive power of film, what a film has to do while unfolding its story. A movie that spends a little over a month with characters in under two hours must still feel like we have gotten to know these people over that same period in story’s time-frame. It takes true storytelling skill to accomplish this and luckily director Michaël R. Roskam, writer Dennis Lehane and Tom Hardy are all game.
Tom Hardy continues his streak of great performance this year as Bob Saginowski, a mild-mannered simple Brooklyn bartender working for his cousin Marv, James Gandolfini’s last role, in a rough NYC neighborhood. When their bar is robbed at gunpoint the Checen mobsters that own their establishment of course want what the money back, with blood interest. So on paper The Drop presents nothing really new to its genre that we haven’t seen before, the difference, as always, is in the execution and characters. Luckily that is what this breezy crime thriller has, with all the recognizable trappings of a Dennis Lehane ground-level crime story only this time transplanted from the streets of Boston to the burrow of Brooklyn, New York.
Bob is your regular Joe type caught up in the middle of corruption and greed within the dark alley ways of his hometown. “I just tend bar” he says, putting his head down and trying to remain legit, even as his bar is used as a drop sight for illegal gambling money. Until one day he finds a beaten puppy abandoned in a trash can in front of a home of a damaged woman Nadia (a vulnerable and defensive Noomi Rapace) and decides to help both of them out. Hardy is able to breath life into the tough guy with a soft side archetype thereby giving Bob a more fleshed out and natural quality that he is becoming known for in his roles.
Gandolfini as Marv is appropriately Tony Soprano-esque in his final film role, indeed his washed up bar owner has the demeanor and disposition of the man’s signature character. The rest of the cast, including Roskam’s Bullhead hold-over Mathias Schoenarts as the puppy’s former owner and John Ortiz as a suspicious police detective all add to the atmosphere of a rough neighborhood. Small-time genre pieces like this one succeed when they are able to convey a sense of a real place, inhabited by people that actually exist, for better and for worse. There is longing in their eyes for better places, to be better off and have better standing. It is this understanding of their struggle that lies at the core of any good crime-drama.
Novelist turned screenwriter Dennis Lehane uproots his usual Boston setting for a NYC one seamlessly, proving that he doesn’t just understand people from Boston, he just understands people, period. His ability to portray low-level crime rooted in the outskirts of American big cities in an empathetic manner is always a welcomed touch. Though not as devastating as Mystic River or as gripping as Gone Baby Gone, The Drop fits neatly among those stories as a focused character piece about people living on the edge and the choices they make.
The puppy that Bob and Nadia both start to raise together helps to symbolize the growth in their relationship, in the month that we see them. That is the true test of film characters that despite the reducing power of editing there is a sense of knowing these characters and the best movies this year and, any year, are able pull this off in creative ways. Ida was able to do this via outstanding cinematography and framing, Boyhood did it with in the natural actors aging with the 12-year production period and perfect editing and while The Drop is not as accomplished as either of those (few films are) it does this by strength of writing, pacing and performances. And those points can never be overstated.