Most films about gangsters focus on those at the top of the criminal food chain - the bosses, dons, and godfathers. For the majority who work in and around organized crime, however, the lifestyle isn't easily romanticized. The Drop puts the bottom-feeders in its cross-hairs, taking aim at blue-collar workers for whom $5000 is a lot of money. The characters in this film are bartenders and waitresses, men whose best days are either behind them or destined never to come. The strength of the narrative is twofold: it tells the kind of adult story often avoided by an increasingly teen-oriented movie industry and keeps viewers unsure how things are going to turn out. The Drop's unpredictability is organic rather than sensationalistic. The movie doesn't pull surprises out of thin air for the sole purpose of shocking an audience - it lets them develop naturally.
This is the feature screenwriting debut of celebrated author Dennis Lehane, who has written for TV (Boardwalk Empire and The Wire) and whose novels have been brought to the screen by well-respected directors (Shutter Island, Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone). Lehane understands the gritty underbelly of the world in which his characters subsist, where being a criminal is just another occupation and the only thing worse than murder or robbery is telling the cops about it. The narrative for The Drop is convoluted and at least one subplot (involving a detective) feels extraneous. Director Michael R. Roskam, a Belgian making his American feature debut, has acknowledged that there were longer cuts of the movie; the inclusion of certain deleted scenes may have smoothed out some of the choppier aspects of the final version and resolved the ambiguous loose ends.
Tom Hardy deserves to be placed in the pantheon of today's best working actors. He is a chameleon who can do any kind of role and whose face can vary from expressive to impassive. Here, he's playing a hard-working, somewhat dim bartender named Bob Saginowski whose unswerving devotion to his cousin, Marv (James Gandolfini in his final role), has placed him in a dead-end job. Marv, once an up-and-coming figure in Brooklyn's mob, has fallen on hard times. His bar, which he no longer owns, is used by Chechen gangsters as a "drop location." When the bar is robbed on a drop night, Marv's bosses become belligerent about getting their $5000 back and hint that if Marv can't find the responsible parties, repayment of the money will fall on him. Meanwhile, Bob has adopted a battered pit bull puppy. With the help of Nadia (Noomi Rapace), the woman in whose trash can the puppy was dumped, he learns how to care for the animal and things seem to be going well until its mentally unstable owner, Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts), starts to stalk him.
The Drop is excellent at developing its atmosphere and establishing its setting. Bob, although largely an enigma ("We all have secrets") attains three-dimensionality in large part due to Hardy's performance. It's unclear for much of the film what motivates him beyond simple things like bonding with his dog and helping his cousin, although that changes toward the end. The two other main characters, Marv and Nadia, could have benefitted from additional exposure. They're at least as intriguing as Bob but time limitations truncate their development. Another victim to the need for a sub-two hour running length is the relationship between Bob and Nadia, which would have been strengthened by a few more shared scenes.
Roskam's style is from the "slow burn" school that demands patience from viewers as he establishes circumstances and introduces characters then gradually ramps up the tension as events unfold. There's no shortage of ominous characters lurking around the periphery and it soon becomes apparent that the truth about a decade-old murder will play a part in The Drop's resolution. As the film moves toward its conclusion, with some expert cross-cutting between various characters, the level of suspense peaks. Here's proof that old-school methods of elevating the viewer's blood pressure are as effective as ever. Taut, intriguing, and capable of drawing the attentive viewer in, The Drop is a good way to bridge the gap between the disappointment of 2014's summer season and the hope of better things to come in the autumn.