"We're dead already... we're just walkin' around."
Very few writers traffic in low level crime and the effect it has on a neighborhood quite like Dennis Lehane. Whether it's in his most well known works like Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, or in his short stories, Lehane is one of the best at capturing the never-ending cycle of crime that grabs people when they're young and never lets them go. His latest work to hit the screen, The Drop, is based on a short story titled Animal Rescue, and tells the story of a Brooklyn drop bar, a place criminals use to store large sums of money acquired through various unscrupulous means.
Cousin Marv's is one such haunt, named after Marv (James Gandolfini), a former big time hood who is now simply an errand boy for Chechen mobsters. Marv's literal cousin, Bob (Tom Hardy) tends the bar, and also tends to himself, always keeping his eyes and his head down while seemingly never ceasing to watch everything going on around him. On his way home from work one night, Bob discovers a pit bull puppy who was beaten and left to die in a garbage can outside the home of a woman named Nadia (Noomi Rapace). Seeing in this puppy a kindred spirit, Bob nurses it back to health with Nadia's help, and the two form a tenuous relationship built on secrecy.
Back at work, the bar is robbed one night by two masked thugs, and the Chechen (Michael Aronov) whose father runs the bar puts Bob and Marv on notice to recover the five grand stolen from them. It isn't long before worlds begin to collide, and all of the various crimes perpetrated within the opening minutes of the film show their connection to one another. This is the film's greatest strength, tying all of these circumstances together and keeping the audience in the dark as to who has the upper hand and why. It's an interesting concept that never fails to keep the audience wondering what the motivations of various characters are, but it's also unfortunately the kind of film that requires a somewhat longwinded explanation in the third act.
This is where the film's strengths suddenly become liabilities, which is unfortunate considering how well the first two acts play out. Hardy never fails to make Bob an interesting character, whose stoic demeanor conceals the fact that he's either a half-wit or an exceedingly dangerous individual, or perhaps some combination of the two. It's another fascinating performance by an actor who relishes the chance to play such a character, and Hardy delivers as always.
If The Drop is not wholly successful as a film, it's certainly not for lack of trying. It's impressive to see such verisimilitude in a film directed by a Belgian, Michaël R. Roskam, and populated with non-American actors playing Brooklynites (Hardy, Rapace, and the excellent Matthias Schoenaerts as the pit bull's former owner). It speaks to the universality of the themes at play, and thematically this is an incredibly successful film. Where it falls short is in the crucial elements of storytelling, from its sluggish pace to the multiple endings required to tie up every possible loose end.
As a swan song for James Gandolfini, it's simultaneously comforting and a bit disappointing. Comforting because it's the kind of role that's right in his wheelhouse, allowing him to wield a sideways glance like a cudgel, but also disappointing because it is so close to the kind of thing he's done better elsewhere. However, to think of this film without a towering presence such as his would likely downgrade it substantially, which speaks volumes about what it is that he brings to the film.
The Drop is a very good film that suffers from some contrivances and poor pacing, and much like Mystic River, would have been a better film had it ended five minutes sooner than it did. As a truthful look at the interconnectedness of various criminal elements, all of whom think they're operating independent of one another, it's endlessly fascinating and incredibly well-crafted. As entertainment, however, it falls short in several areas. Thank goodness Tom Hardy is as good an actor as he is, and the rest of the ensemble is just as accomplished, because they rescue the film from its own shortcomings. Ultimately it's a very good movie that can't help but elude greatness.