Silver Screen: The Drop ****1/2

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Who:
What:
Where:
When:
The best of writer Dennis Lehane’s work splits the difference between literary character drama and g
Bryan Miller

 

The best of writer Dennis Lehane’s work splits the difference between literary character drama and gritty, streetwise genre fiction. Lehane was a writer for The Wire, and adaptations of his novels Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone have been nominated for Academy Awards, so ranking anything among his crowning achievements is a significant endorsement. The Drop earns every bit of that praise. It’s a small-scale, slow burn of a crime story whose humble setting and limited scope belie its outsized emotional wallop.

Tom Hardy stars as Bob Saginowski, the soft-spoken and seemingly softhearted bartender of a run-down Brooklyn bar. His cousin Marv (James Gandolfini of The Sopranos) used to own the place and run a sports book, but a decade ago he was muscled out by Chechen gangsters. Now the ramshackle watering hole is a front, more specifically a “drop bar”: a secret location where the gang’s gambling revenue is collected and stored a few nights a year. In between waiting for the infrequent, unannounced drops, Bob and Marv go through the motions of running a real business while life passes them by.

A pair of incidents jars the cousins out of their torpid routine. Bob enlists the help of his skittish neighbor Nadia (Noomi Rapace) to rescue an abused pitbull puppy he finds stuffed into a garbage can. The two cautiously bond over the dog, but their relationship draws the ire of her unbalanced ex-boyfriend (Matthias Schoenaerts), who is rumored to have killed a local barfly. Meanwhile, a stickup at the bar leaves Marv and Bob short five grand of the Chechens’ money, which they are expected to track down and return as proof of their innocence.

The first indication that Bob might be more than a dopey lug comes when he and Marv must dispose of a grim package delivered to them by the Chechens. As Bob casually bundles the gory remains of a revenge plot in flimsy plastic wrap, Marv shakes his head and marvels over his cousin’s oddly casual behavior. “It’s like you’ve done this a thousand times.”

Everyone knows everyone else in this cloistered Brooklyn neighborhood, but still they keep their secrets. Lehane carefully doles out the backstory as the trajectory of the characters’ shared histories sets them on a collision course. It’s a deftly accomplished piece of storytelling that builds an incredible amount of suspense without leaning on more lurid and flashy tough-guy tropes.

Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam (Bullhead) perfectly captures the rhythms and textures of the neighborhood in all its dilapidated glory. He’s doesn’t oversell the dinginess of the settings or try to contextualize the story with familiar noir trappings. The violence is spare but harrowing and resonant. His work is consistently understated yet assured.

The story’s narrow scope is one of its great assets. Lehane excels on a grander scale— in The Wire’s macrocosmic sweep, or the mural-sized portrait of a city in his best novel, The Given Day— but The Drop is based on a short story, “Animal Rescue,” and its confines help give the narrative shape. It could easily be reimagined as a stageplay yet remains decidedly cinematic. The lack of tangents and distractions allows for a tight focus on the two central performances, which are exceptional.

Rapace is excellent and invests her character with agency even in the kind of story where women are too often reduced to victims or villains. But The Drop belongs to Hardy and Gandolfini, who deliver two of the year’s best performances in the same movie. Hardy suggests a brutal physicality beneath his slouch and oversized sweaters but keeps his voice low and his eyes downcast. Bob is a guy you could meet a hundred times and never notice, yet from the opening frame Hardy cultivates an air of mystery around him. He’s some kind of X-factor— but to what end? Gandolfini, meanwhile, wears his weariness as openly as his zip-up New York Jets track suit and begs the question of whether Marv has been able to convert a lifetime of regrets into some kind of goomba Buddha wisdom.

The Drop is, alas, the final film of the late, great James Gandolfini. This awareness oddly bolsters the movie’s intensity. If and when his character is killed, it’s truly the end of an actor who has dominated screens big and small for more than two decades. Because the vast majority of us only knew him onscreen, somehow his dying there most poignantly drives home the tragic reality of his absence. It’s a small mercy that his swan song is so elegant, and perhaps the greatest endorsement The Drop could receive is to say that it’s deserving of being his final work.

Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.