The response of your average cineaste, upon hearing the words “In Brooklyn…” in a film’s opening narration, is to look for the nearest exit. What follows is too frequently more mythologizing than storytelling. The borough is transformed from specific place to psychic landscape, full of tribal loyalties and tight bonds, where the begrimed and as-yet ungentrified street scene indicates bootstrapping and self-policing pride. Cops not needed here.
However, if you follow your instincts and bolt at the start of Michael R. Roskam’s sturdy and bleak noir The Drop, you miss Tom Hardy creating a thing of beauty yet again. Earlier this year, in Locke, Hardy’s performance coiled a confident carapace around a black hole of insecurity. With The Drop‘s shadow-dwelling Bob, Hardy inverts that formula, crafting a similarly fascinating performance out of a quiet young man whose seeming diffidence masks a far darker core than almost anybody around him would guess.
Bob serves drinks at what used to be his cousin Marv’s bar. Although his name still hangs over the door, Marv (James Gandolfini) sold out years ago to the local Chechen mob. Now the Chechens use the place as a “drop bar” for stashing envelopes of cash and Bob and Marv both make a point of always looking the other way.
This doesn’t bother Bob so much, as he just wants to get his work done and be left alone. He lives alone in his dead parents’ mausoleum-like house where the furniture is covered in plastic sheeting and most of the lights stay off. Bob is so retiring that half of his conversation consists of drawling, “Yeah…” and looking off into the middle distance. You get the sense watching Bob that he could easily wear a groove in the sidewalk between Marv’s bar and his house for the next 30 years without missing a beat.
Marv, though, harbors dreams, however faded. He resents being shouldered aside by the more efficiently savage Chechens. It’s a similar brand of midlife disaffection that Tony Soprano marinated in as he groused about some long gone time when traditions mattered, and so on. Gandolfini here wears Marv’s umbrage as easily as an old sweater, but it’s almost too comfortable a role for him. Curiously, he evinced a more visceral kind of hurt in Nicole Holofcener’s rom-com Enough Said than in this two-fisted crime saga.
Marv’s bitterness comes to the foreground when the bar is robbed one night by the kind of morons who might as well have crosshairs painted on the backs of their heads. He starts in with the bad ideas about retribution, making Bob skittish, since the one thing he knows is how to keep his head down and do what he’s told.
It’s not difficult to figure that this state of affairs won’t last. For one thing, there’s the dog. A particularly absurd plot development has Bob pulling a whimpering and bloodied pit bull puppy out of a garbage can in front of a woman’s house. Bob doesn’t know anything about dogs, but Nadia (Noomi Rapace) does. Since she’s the kind of (literally and spiritually) scarred female who inspires tough-guys in movies like this, there’s no question that the dog will bring the two of them together. It’s a meet-cute, noir style.
The tale of the dog is more engaging than the primary plot. The dog brings with him his old owner, notorious local psychopath Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts). He used to date Nadia and now seems to want both his dog and girl back. His looming presence (a Schoenaerts specialty, as he showed in Roskam’s last film Bullhead) and not-so-veiled threat about what he’ll do to Nadia and the dog start pushing Bob to the edge more than Marv’s ill-conceived attempts to regain a criminal luster.
Tracking the slow escalation of Bob’s tension is the most worthwhile aspect of The Drop. Adapted by Dennis Lehane from his originally Boston-set short story “Animal Rescue,” the screenplay’s stretch marks are a little too obvious. The background (neighborhood, history) remains underdeveloped, and the less attention one pays to Marv’s behind-the-scenes machinations the better, as they don’t hold up to much logical scrutiny.
Not much of that matters in the final reckoning, due to Hardy’s tour de force. Almost more so than in Locke, he displays an almost uncanny ability to tease out the smallest evolutions in his character’s growing unease. His slow build-up to an inevitable-seeming detonation — particularly in the scenes Hardy shares with the sublimely unctuous Schoenaerts — is repeatedly affecting. Roskam delivers a genre piece, complete with an incongruous Maltese falcon statuette in the back of Marv’s bar.
The film is almost too comfortable with that premise, and skips over what might have been original details (again, like Bullhead, which substituted brute physicality for story or character). Letting Hardy carry a film is rarely a bad idea, but it’s a better one to give him some help.