The Drop has all the pieces needed to assemble into a great feature for Fox Searchlight. And yet, somewhere between the talented cast, including the late James Gandolfini, and the script, by well- respected Boston based writer Dennis Lehane, the film feels like it just misses the bullseye it tries so hard to reach.
Tom Hardy plays Bob Saginowski, a bartender who works for his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) running a “drop bar” for a Chechen gang in the underground of Brooklyn. After the two are held up by masked robbers, and the dirty money they’re responsible for is taken, a slow boiling plot brews, ultimately connecting with Bob’s discovery of a beaten puppy in a trash can one evening outside a girl’s house (Noomi Rapace).
The Drop is the second film directed by Belgian filmmaker Michaël R. Roskam (Bullhead), and rejoins him with equally fresh cinematographer, Nicolas Karakatsanis, making the film sport a visual style that conveys the nostalgic issues between the two lead characters. Its gloomy, bold, and gritty look, meanwhile, recalls Drive from a couple of years ago, even including a sense that it is inspired by old pulp thrillers from the 1970s. This genre is actually an inspiration admitted by the film’s writer Dennis Lehane.
The story was based on an idea Lehane had many years ago, which he then decided to expand into a full novel for the production of this film. Truly, I feel that this is where The Drop makes its dip in quality. Lehane is most notable for writing very bleak stories and morally grey characters, as seen in his previous work like Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island and Mystic River. This film, however, based on his short story Animal Rescue, was his first opportunity to write a script based on his own work. I could sense very quickly in the second half of the film’s runtime that the setup was very well established, and this was because Bob, the drop bar and the discovery of the pitbull puppy were Lehane’s original ideas from years ago. The rest of the plot, however, both in the film and in the short story, feels inconsistent, uneven in tone, and far too reliant on a twist toward the end that leaves the audience questioning its following of a main character; something much harder to pull off in a film, even with the talented cast involved.
Gandolfini, an actor whom Lehane pushed for in the casting process, is great at playing the kind of bitter, underground New Yorker he is most famous for portraying, and while it’s not the most glorifying note to send him off on, it’s a role to remind everyone why he was so beloved for his work as Tony Soprano and other mob affiliated characters.
Tom Hardy, a new front man for the industry, gives life to Bob with his ability to dive in and learn the psychology and body language of his characters, and even more so in developing his accents (one need look no further than his performance as a Welshman in Locke this year, in addition to his Brooklyn accent here). While Hardy’s mumbling throughout the performance seems to be successful, the story is unclear about whether the audience should be trusting of his morality, as he’s a man of faith, feeling the weight of his sins upon him at all times, and, although he is not a samaritan, he is a man with a conscience. However, his actions throughout the second half of The Drop cause the audience trouble in feeling close to a main protagonist who props himself up on a high horse, and ultimately alienates them from the story with no sense of consequence other than “It’s just business.”
Noomi Rapace, a great actress, has very little to do playing Bob’s troubled veterinary love interest, Nadia, as she mumbles through more dialogue than Hardy, and is ultimately reduced to a metaphorical trophy for two psychopaths, as well as a tragic figure of battered wife syndrome at the end of the movie.
Truthfully, the show-stealer of The Drop is the puppy that Bob takes in as his own, and that becomes more trouble than he is worth. Any moment on screen with this puppy is one of the most genuinely cute things I’ve seen on film recently, but that may be a result of personal bias. I also find that having a film that features a dog of pitbull breed, and promotes the debunking of the myth that they’re naturally aggressive, is a great thing. I’m still uncertain if I feel that this dog’s presence is the film’s saving grace, or a hindrance by keeping it from feeling as bleak of a story as it could be.
Ultimately, The Drop feels like it has so many good, talented qualities that went into it, and a setup that I’d even call “great”, but the first chapter that Lehane shelved for years feels as if it were dusted off simply because Fox asked it of him. The story has potential, and may have turned out better with even one extra rewrite session, but it falls apart at its conclusion by raising the stakes by crying “psychopath”, leaving one with the sense that the writer just watched Taxi Driver for nostalgia’s sake the night before. It’s an entertaining small movie that knows where it comes from, but given the potential of all the moving pieces involved, I can’t help but feel it could have been something so much more. But damn, that puppy was cute.
The Drop opens in theaters everywhere on September 12th.