This is James Gandolfini’s last film, though he gets second billing here to the very versatile Tom Hardy. Based on the Dennis Lehane short story “Animal Rescue,” Hardy plays Bob Saginowski, a bartender in a gritty Brooklyn bar named after, and formerly owned by, Gandolfini’s character, Uncle Marv. Marv is under the thumb of a small band of Chechen mobsters who use his bar—well, their bar— (among other places) as a drop location for the loot collected around town by their myriad criminal enterprises. As Uncle Marv is involved, so inevitably is Saganowski. But there’s other trouble brewing for Saganowski as well. A seemingly decent if reticent and low-profile fellow, he puts himself unwittingly on the wrong side of a different criminal element, the notorious bad boy Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts). Walking home one night after locking up the bar, Bob finds a put bull puppy in someone’s trash can. The puppy has been beaten up, and Bob adopts the dog and (with some help from the garbage can’s owner, Nadia, played by Noomi Rapace) nurses him back to health. Turns out Mr. Deeds is the dog’s original owner, and he decides he wants his dog—and his old girlfriend—back. Or maybe he just wants to make trouble.
The thing is, nobody is really exactly who they appear to be; that’s kind of the whole banana. It’s a lovely script, focusing on these rather inscrutable characters in between and during the pinch points that drive the story. Uncle Marv is a guy with a lot of miles on the clock and without much—or any—opportunity to set anything right again (watching the overweight and out-of-breath Gandolfini chain smoking his way through the film, one cannot help thinking of the fate that awaits him shortly after the production wrapped). How desperate is he, and what’s left to lose? Noomi Rapace’s Nadia seems a basically good person who has touched the hot stove too many times. But how much has she participated in her colorful past? Eric Deeds is a man with a frightful reputation—or is he? Bob Saganowski, having almost a touch of Forrest Gump or the Rain Man about him, is the film’s great mystery: is he a bit of a simpleton or not? He was a wild youth—how wild? How far from his wild youth is he? Is Bob just not much of a talker or is he rather smart enough to know when to keep his mouth shut?
The performances are magnetic. Hardy especially impresses, as he is given so few colors on his palette to work with, yet he’s in virtually every scene. Gandolfini plays a man who has lived hard and is now in over his head, and it’s a little hard to jettison the expectation that he will just summon Tony Soprano’s resourcefulness to get himself out of the hole he’s in. But Uncle Marv is not Tony Soprano. Noomi Rapace is lovely, though there’s perhaps a bit too much of the damsel in distress in her role (though that’s certainly not her fault). It’s really Tom Hardy’s story, and he gives a very restrained performance that feels exactly right for this story.
Lehane often sets his stories in his native Boston (Mystic River, Gone, Baby, Gone, The Given Day--I almost said The Town, which is the right place but another author), and this could as easily have been set there. The Drop has a very blue collar setting that feels to me more Boston than Brooklyn. But that’s probably just me not knowing either place very well, and it’s neither here nor there in any case; the filmmakers have channeled a hardscrabble urban world that feels authentic and makes the perfect setting for this story.
Afterward I find myself impressed at the mob movie that’s more Hitchcock than Scorsese. It steers clear of most of the mob violence one expects (though not all). The Drop is about tension and about the interaction of personalities in a life-and-death world. I’m reminded yet again that a great film often needs a great basic story at its core, and that’s the job of a writer. A high proportion of my favorites have started life as a great book (though there will always be exceptions, like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Chinatown). This one hits its marks in fine fashion.
Grade: A- / B+
(PS: Brownie points for identifying the source of this review's title.)