Friday, September 12, 2014

The Drop

THE DROP: Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace, directed by Michael R. Roskam (106 min.)

Tom Hardy can play just about any type of character, and play it well.  I enjoy him as an actor.  But he might be most effective when he is understated, and in The Drop, Hardy is the most understated, unassuming protagonist to ever occupy a crime drama.  He is Bob, our narrator, who tells us in a voiceover about the "drop bars" in a New York neighborhood where low-rent mobs store and move money around town at night.  He tells us about the criminal element that exists in his neighborhood, an serving as a sort of tapestry for the common citizens.  And Bob?  Well, he "just tends the bar," or so he tells us.  He carries himself with a limp, acts slow on the draw.  But there is something up with this guy, and the majority of the film involves trying to break through the simple-minded exterior of this slump-shouldered bartender.

Bob runs the bar of his cousin, Cousin Marv, a washed up gangster wannabe played by the late James Gandolfini in his final role.  Well, it used to be Marv's bar; despite the sign outside, more prominent criminal figures own the establishment.  Marv tried to run the neighborhood a few years ago, but was muscled into submission by a foreign faction of gangsters who are much slicker and more menacing.  Bob is his right-hand man.  He speaks simply, softly, and stays in the shadows of his own life.  Cousin Marv's bar is one of the many drop bars in town, and one night when it is robbed by two masked men, the police begin snooping around and the real, foreign owners come calling.

But this screenplay, written by Dennis Lehane (who wrote Shutter Island and Gone Baby, Gone), does not take the typical approach to a crime drama.  Rather than amp up the violence, The Drop takes a side road with Bob.  One night on his way home, Bob hears a puppy whimpering in a nearby trash can.  He retrieves the Pit Bull puppy, bloody and abandoned, and is confronted by the homeowner, a skittish woman named Nadia (Noomi Rapace) who takes some time to warm to Bob.  She had nothing to do with the dog being abandoned.  Bob doesn't know a thing about dogs, but Nadia implores him to take ownership, and the couple bond over the puppy.  It is an interesting branch to a familiar story.  Before long, the owner of the dog appears, and is a menacing former boyfriend of Nadia.  He presses Bob to return the dog to him, but why?  Some motivations remain unclear in the film, which is a drawback in the end.  But I admire the effort to expand upon a traditional story.

The former boyfriend, Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts), becomes a larger player as the story unfolds, and his menace creates great tension.  The plot is occasionally too obtuse for its own good, but The Drop is less about plot and more about these broken lives of neighborhood folks who were once much happier people.  As we begin to learn more about Nadia and, eventually, Marv, Bob remains a mystery until the final moments.  The screenplay lets us into these lives, and allows us to feel sympathy for Bob, all the while keeping him at arm's length for very deliberate purposes.  

In the end, perception has changed for just about everyone involved.  The Drop was a film I was not expecting.  While the directing is unremarkable in the end, and the narrative too convoluted at times, the performances are sublime and unique to the performer.  Noomi Rapace, with an open face and dark eyes, hides sadness well.  And it is still a little odd seeing Gandolfini in film roles this long after his passing.  Nevertheless, he brings comfort to a crime drama like this, playing yet another photo negative to his powerful and egomaniacal Tony Soprano character.  But this is a film where Tom Hardy captivates from the opening scene.  He can do so many things with his voice and, like the best actors around, can say so much without so much as raising an eyebrow.

The Drop may ultimately be unremarkable as a whole, but I found certain elements fascinating, and I respect the writing for attempting to approach a crime drama from a fresh perspective.