The Drop has received surprisingly good reviews and is doing decent box-office for what it is, but it’s an extra-dramatic factor which inspires its most profound notoriety: it’s the final film role of James Gandolfini (and by a poignant coincidence, I saw the film on what would have been his 53rd birthday). On that score, some may be disappointed–he doesn’t get quite as much to do as I’d like, owing to the film’s structural shortcomings–but his role, that of a man who bitterly recalls his glory days (such as they were) and makes a desperate bid to secure his happiness, is a fittingly autumnal showcase for his talents.
The film itself is solid–not great, not bad, but wholly watchable; a film that tries to encompass a lot and doesn’t so gracefully, but which has a good cast, some good scenes, and a good sense of lives lived in quiet desperation.
In Brooklyn, Marv (Gandolfini) runs a bar–Cousin Marv’s Bar–with the help of his younger cousin Bob (Tom Hardy). Marv used to be something of a force in their neighborhood, but after the Chechen mob moved in–now led by Chovka (Michael Aronov)–he lost what power he had, and the bar is now one of several used as a “drop bar”, a repository for the mob’s money. One night, the bar is held up, and after Bob accidentally informs the police of an identifying feature on one of the robbers, tensions in the neighborhood rise, and it becomes clear that Marv, who is weary of his dead-end life, is behind the robbery, and is under increasing pressure to cover his tracks and get out of town.
Meanwhile, Bob finds a pit bull puppy in a trashcan at the home of Nadia (Noomi Rapace), a waitress with a mysterious past, who helps Bob take care of the puppy, which he names Rocco (after the patron saint of dogs). In the process, they become close, but trouble arises in the form of Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), Nadia’s ex-boyfriend, a local tough who claims responsibility for a past murder and who claims to be Rocco’s legal owner.
Detective Torres (Eric Ortiz) investigates the robbery, and suspects Bob of being guilty of something, but he can prove nothing. All he knows is that Bob never takes communion at the church they both attend…
If The Drop sounds a bit like two films in one, that’s because it feels like it for a good deal of its running time. It was originally titled Animal Rescue, after the short story by Dennis Lehane (who wrote the screenplay). I’ve skimmed the story and, sure enough, the story focuses on the triangle around the dog (named Cassius in the story). Marv and his frustrations are present, but the rest of his story was either taken from another story of Lehane’s or created for the film.
And to a degree, it shows. Marv’s scheme is pretty monumentally foolish–and while I won’t give away the ending, you can probably guess how it works out–and worse, it feels unoriginal; it actually reminds me a lot of Ray Liotta’s scheme in Killing Them Softly, which coincidentally featured an incredible performance by Gandolfini, a two-scene wonder which almost got him a nomination from me (and in retrospect, might be better than some of my nominees) and was certainly more Oscar worthy than, say, Alan Arkin’s work in Argo. But I digress.
The Marv plot is not in of itself bad, but it feels like the stuff of many a past mob drama, and it never feels fully developed. Marv’s bitterness at having lost the little power he once had–which Bob points out was really nothing to make a big deal over–could’ve been a whole film on its own, and maybe should have been. As it is, it feels like a sidelight. And while I won’t say the Bob-Rocco-Nadia plot is the most original thing in the world, as a portrait of two quiet, lonely souls in a grim world brought together by a (very cute) puppy, it has an elemental appeal and doesn’t coast on cheap sentimentality.
Still, it’s hard to say exactly what the point of The Drop really is, and Lehane’s script lacks the focus to make a strong thriller or character piece, or the breadth to make a great portrait of a neighborhood. It’s generally well-observed, the characters are reasonably three-dimensional, and it has good scenes and decent dialogue, but it ultimately feels a bit generic. I’m curious as to what director Michaël R. Roskam saw in the material per se.
But if the script is ultimately unremarkable, Roskam’s direction and the cast make it worthwhile. Roskam came to prominence with Bullhead, an Oscar-nominated drama starring Schoenaerts about a tragic, bestial man involved in the trade of cattle growth hormones in Belgium. It was a fine film, very well directed and acted, though it too had an overly diffuse focus, the biggest weakness of Roskam’s otherwise strong script. This is his English-language debut, and he captures certain elements of the millieu quite well; the feeling of a city in winter, of the out-of-the-way neighborhoods where life trudges along, of the kind of dangerous individual who treats common sense like an inconvenience at best and a challenge at worst.
It’s a long way from the best cinematic portrait of New York, but Roskam establishes place and mood well. Pace is a different matter; while a deliberate pace was clearly intended, the film feels, dare I say it, a bit poky? That may be more due to the script’s sometimes hazy structure, but it feels longer than its 106 minutes. It’s not a fatal issue, just another one of the many little issues that keep it at the *** level.
Coming off the excellent Locke, Tom Hardy gives another strong performance as a seemingly very different man. Locke was driven and confident to a fault; Bob is content to tend bar and keep out of the way. Yet both men prove to have an inner strength that sees them through, even if their circumstances are far from ideal. Hardy assumes an odd, hard to pin down accent, somewhere between his natural British accent and a Brooklyn patois. At first it sounds a bit off-putting, but it ultimately feels right for Bob, who’s clearly a bit shy, a bit awkward, and aware that he looks like a tough guy but doesn’t want to be one.
Hardy captures Bob’s apologetic good-nature pretty much perfectly, but he’s also effective in his confrontations with Deeds and Marv, believable as a man who doesn’t want trouble and knows just how absurd and petty the conflicts around him are, but who has that inner strength that will come out when necessary. If it’s not the virtuoso accomplishment that his work in Locke was, it’s still a very solid piece of work from Hardy, who’s going to have one hell of a year next year, between Child 44, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Legend, a film where he plays both Kray brothers. I’m really happy for him.
And then there’s Gandolfini. Now, his work here isn’t quite as good as his work in Killing Them Softly and probably not quite as good as his work in Enough Said (which I haven’t seen yet). But he still gives a fine performance. His Tony Soprano reputation aside, Gandolfini has (had? I hate to discuss him in the past tense) a warm, bearish quality to him which makes him both intimidating and inviting. And Marv might seem like a nice guy on the outside, a fixture of the neighborhood, a genial old-timer. But deep within him, frustration and resentment has been building for years, and Gandolfini communicates that most simply and effectively.
And when these passions come to the surface, Gandolfini doesn’t forsake the nuances of his characterization; when Marv recounts how he once commanded respect, how he once had his own stool in the bar (which is now occupied by a homeless woman Bob hosts to Marv’s irritation), how “that meant something!” But instead of a once-great man bemoaning his fall, Gandolfini makes Marv sound like nothing so much as a child whose toys were taken away. Another actor might try to evoke nobility, but Gandolfini avoids romanticizing Marv; whatever greatness was once in him has been eaten away by years of brooding, of watching his father (who is probably in a vegetative state) waste away, of hearing his sister Dottie (Ann Dowd) long to get away from their dead-end lives.
Marv too is willing to act when he has to, but where Hardy puts across Bob’s almost unthinking efficiency in acting, Gandolfini shows us Marv’s cruel, crude desperation. After one particularly brutal act, Marv tiptoes away; there’s something wholly unique about Gandolfini’s gait in this scene–perhaps a taste of what Marv was, once upon a time? Or Marv feeling an old exhilaration? Little touches like this, or like Gandolfini’s face in his final shot–perhaps (though probably not) the final scene he ever filmed–or like the glint in his eyes, peering out over his permanent scowl, are what truly make this portrait of a rather pathetic shell of a man.
The rest of the cast is something of a mixed bag. Rapace has never quite found her niche in American films (Prometheus being the high point, I suppose), and her work here reminds me of her work in Dead Man Down (which, coincidentally, was another film by a European director making their American debut). She does a solid job, convincing of us past traumas and the generally upbeat attitude that helps her to bear them, but the role really doesn’t ask much of her, and could’ve been played by pretty much anyone.
Schoenaerts, on the other hand, not only pulls off a pretty good NYC accent, but he also brings some of that fearsomely illogical energy that he brought to Bullhead, and while the film doesn’t always seem to know what to do with Deeds (an issue compounded by the presence of at least one other character who looks enough like him to confuse the viewer), he strikes the right balance between aggressiveness and hamminess. Ortiz, on the other hand, edges over into ham; the film also doesn’t really seem to decide if Torres is a good cop or a bad cop–he seems essentially honest, but he leans on Bob, and is kind of a sleaze. In trying to play probing suspicion, he comes off as over-the-top, and is probably the weak link in the cast.
Aronov brings some fleeting menace to the role of Chovka, but it’s a pretty stock role; Dowd does a good job–there’s something deeply poignant about the way she dotes on Gandolfini–but she’s barely in the film, and instead of becoming a tragic character, she simply becomes a wasted one.
Technically, the film is adequate. Nicolas Karakatsanis’ cinematography doesn’t match up to his excellent work on Bullhead, but it looks good enough. Marco Beltrami’s score is fairly generic, but it doesn’t get in the way. What does stand out is Thérèse DePrez’ production design, bringing the run-down bar and the run-down, lived-in homes of the characters to life. Contemporary production design is often overlooked, but DePrez’ work did impress me.
The Drop didn’t impress me as a whole, though. It has quite a few merits, mostly due to its cast, and it captures a certain millieu quite well. But it never quite finds its groove story-wise, and so ends up a merely good film, rather than a great one, or even an underappreciated one.
That dog is really cute, though.
Here is a link to the text of Animal Rescue, if you’re interested.