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The Drop (2014)

downloadDIRECTOR: Michael Roskam

CAST: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini, Matthias Schoenaerts, John Ortiz

REVIEW:

The Drop is the kind of slow-burn, low-key crime drama that can be rewarding to fans of the genre who appreciate a story that unfolds at its own pace, but will be dismissed as boring by mainstream crowds, devoid of sex, explosions, car chases, or gunfights.  What little violence there is comes in brief, sudden bursts, few and far between.  If you’re looking for action, this is not the movie for you.  Even for those interested, a little hunting for a theater may be required; The Drop was initially released as a low-profile indie film in only 809 theaters, delaying this review for a week until positive critical reviews and a decent performance at the box office led to an expansion of showings.  Despite the lack of attention, The Drop comes from a respectable pedigree.  It’s the screenwriting debut of author Dennis Lehane, whose previous stories have been adapted into critically-acclaimed films (Mystic River, Shutter Island, Gone Baby Gone), and marks the English-language debut of Belgian director Michael Roskam, whose Bullhead received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film.  Its cast might not include any “A-listers”, but it’s made up of well-regarded character actors, including the final film role of the late James Gandolfini.  All this doesn’t add up to a spectacular motion picture, but it has produced an intriguing crime drama with a couple surprise twists and a narrative that’s made uneasy by its unpredictability.

The Drop slowly unfolds two mostly-unconnected plot strands.  In the first, quiet, withdrawn bartender Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) works for his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) at one of various bars scattered around their Brooklyn neighborhood as a “drop”, where the mob deposits their ill-gotten gains to be collected at a later date.  Once upon a time, Marv was feared and respected (or so he tells himself), but he’s been edged out by younger, meaner mobsters and reduced to merely running the bar he once owned (a blow to his pride that’s stuck in his craw ever since).  One night, two masked hoodlums rob the bar, and the Chechen gangsters who own it want Marv and Bob to get their money back.  If  Marv can pull this off, he could win the coveted status of his bar designated as the drop for Super Bowl Sunday, when a lot of money will be flowing.  Of course, if he doesn’t, things could go badly for him and maybe also Bob by association.

Meanwhile, Bob’s uneventful life hits another hiccup when he finds an abused and abandoned pit bull puppy in the garbage can outside the apartment of his mysterious neighbor Nadia (Noomi Rapace).  Reluctantly, Bob forms an attachment to another living being–first becoming the dog’s caretaker, then forming a tentative budding friendship and possibly more with Nadia–something he’s avoided for unclear reasons involving a troubled past.  But more trouble pops up in the form of Nadia’s possessive and unstable ex Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts), who starts lurking around, harassing Bob and Nadia, and demanding a hefty paycheck to leave them alone.  There are a couple other plot complications involving a nosy detective (John Ortiz) who starts sniffing around, and the truth behind the decade-old unsolved murder of a teenage boy from the neighborhood, and as tension builds between Bob and Eric, various characters may turn out to have unsavory and dangerous secrets, and all may not be as it seems.

There’s a lot going on in The Drop, and at times the narrative is convoluted.  John Ortiz’s nosy but ineffectual Detective Torres and Marv’s sister Dottie (Ann Dowd) feel superfluous; neither gets a great deal of screentime, but they eat up bits and pieces of the fairly slim hour-and-forty-six minute runtime that could have gone to further developing more important supporting characters like Marv and Nadia.  Director Roskam has acknowledged that there were longer cuts of the movie, and at times aspects of the plot feel underdeveloped.  Leaving out Dottie and Torres and elaborating on one’s character’s scheming in particular could have cleared up some fuzzy details.  Certain scenes feel a little choppy, and the dialogue is sometimes clunky; characters have too many scenes where it sounds more like they’re tossing scraps of exposition back and forth for the benefit of the audience than having a natural conversation.

On the plus side, Roskam does an effective job establishing the setting and atmosphere of an insular Brooklyn neighborhood where any number of misdeeds might be swallowed up under cover of darkness and no one sees or hears anything (at least not when the cops ask around).  The two significant plot twists feel organic rather than cheap surprises tossed in for their own sake.  By how often it’s mentioned, it becomes obvious the decade-old unsolved murder of a teenage boy from the neighborhood is going to be relevant in some way, and the killer’s reveal is unexpected despite subtle hints being sprinkled throughout which only gain significance in hindsight.  One of the promotional taglines, “some people you never see coming” leads us to believe it refers to Nadia’s stalking ex Eric, but by the end we realize we’ve been misdirected. The Drop is slow burn and demands patience as it sets up the situations, then gradually begins dialing up the tension.  The twists and the multiple shady figures lurking around the periphery–the unconnected threats of Eric and the Chechen mob–lead to an uneasy tension, and we’re uncertain how things are going to wrap up.  There is very little violence, but on the couple occasions it comes, it’s abrupt and graphic.  Apart from the climax, there aren’t many moments to get viewers on the edge of their seats, but the movie rarely lets us completely relax either.

dropThe acting is adequate but nothing really special, with the actors not doing anything we haven’t seen them do before, and do better, elsewhere.  One could argue Tom Hardy is interestingly cast against type as the unassuming Bob, but Hardy mumbles and lumbers his way through the movie showing little in the way of emotion, like a more timid variation of Lawless‘ Forrest Bondurant with a hillbilly Virginia accent swapped out for a Brookyln one.  Hardy has played his share of tough guys, but Bob is not one of them; he’s a softhearted sadsack who seems out of his depth in the criminal underworld and isn’t very good at standing up to Eric or other threats (“I just tend the bar”, he meekly insists).  There’s some intrigue about whether Bob’s mousy demeanor might be hiding something, but like Lawless, Hardy slips into overly mannered, excessively subdued affectations that keep Bob at a distance.  Noomi Rapace (who will also be seen with Hardy in next year’s thriller Child 44), does the best she can with an underdeveloped character.  Nadia falls victim to the slim runtime and truncated character development, and both her character and her ambiguous dynamic with Bob could have benefited from more scenes.  Unsurprisingly, James Gandolfini is fine in his last performance, one that doesn’t stray far from the mobster persona he was typecast with (though he played against type in his second-to-last role, co-starring with Julia Louis-Dreyfuss in the romantic comedy Enough Said).  His Marv is like what Tony Soprano might have been if he’d fallen from his throne or never made it there in the first place; a washed-up, bitter has-been whose resentment might steer him into reckless actions.  Matthias Schoenaerts, who starred in Roskam’s Bullhead and co-starred with Marion Cotillard in Rust & Bone, is a standard-issue slightly unhinged thug, though Eric ultimately feels like little more than a wild card plot device (both the Belgian Schoenaerts and the English Tom Hardy adopt convincing Brooklyn accents).  John Ortiz is likewise a standard-issue nosy detective who switches between jovial chitchat and abrupt probing questions, and Michael Aranov as the Chechen kingpin Chovka drops ominously by a couple times to deliver lines that seem to drip with dire portent (Chovka is more menacing than Eric, but also not as unpredictable).  “Rocco” is played onscreen by a few different young pit bulls, and the pups do their share of lovable scene-stealing.

The Drop is not an exceptionally memorable entry in the crowded crime drama genre, and its low-key tone and slow-moving pace will disinterest some viewers, but it’s nice to see a film that unspools its narrative at its own pace and relies on unpredictable characters and believable plot twists to create tension without relying on sex, nudity, car chases, or shootouts.  It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for the patient viewer who’s a fan of this kind of movie, it’s tense and intriguing, and worth a trip to the theater if you’re lucky enough to find it playing in one within a reasonable driving distance.

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