The Drop, based on Dennis Lehane’s short story “Animal Rescue” (part of his 2009 anthology Boston Noir), is less a crime drama, though that is undeniable part of its storytelling DNA, than a slow burning examination of one man’s attempts to live life on the terms he sets.
Quiet and assuming, a man who insists on multiple occasions he is “just a bartender”, Bob Saginwoski ( Tom Hardy in yet another immersively-masterful performance), finds however that choosing how you live your life, and being allowed to follow that chosen course uninterrupted by the vagaries of the world he inhabits, are two completely different things.
Avowedly determined to bookend his days with 8am mass at his neighbourhood church in Brooklyn, and slow meditative walks home late at night from the bar where he works, Cousin Marvin’s – once owned by his actual cousin Marvin (James Gandolfini, towering as always in his final movie performance) who lost it to the coolly violent Chechen mob ten years before, a loss he still resents with every fibre of his self-pitying being – Bob is a man of deeply-held religious and moral convictions, a gentle soul whose only wish is to end the loneliness which blights his existence.
He unwittingly takes steps towards achieving this elusive last goal one evening when he hears the plaintive whimpering of a bloodied and abused Pitbull puppy coming from the trash can of a home he subsequently discovers is occupied by Nadia (Noomi Rapace), a woman whose initial lack of trust and simmering hostility gives way to low-key friendship and then unspoken attraction as the two of them set about giving the dog a loving and attentive home with Bob, a man who isn’t sure at first if he is ready for this kind of responsibility.
Cousin Marvin, all glowering resentment and humourless observations – Gandolfini doesn’t crack a smile throughout the entire movie, a reflection of his one time loan shark character’s belief that he was once something and is no more; self pity incidentally which is knocked promptly on its head by no nonsense Bob who has no time for it – convinces him to take in the dog, beginning Bob’s dance with forces far beyond his simple world of bar tending, and mass-attending.
What gives The Drop the dramatic and emotional resonance it has in spades, is that Lehane and director Michaël R. Roskam are content to let the film play out in quiet understated scenes that, though they bristle with portent and possible life-ending doom, never explode into the mindless and narrative-neutering violence that characterises so many contemporary crime dramas.
Deaths for the most part occur offscreen or in suggested cutaways; robberies when they take place are handled with verbally aggressive posturing and nothing more, the violence always held menacingly in check save for one critical climactic scene which even then, is over and done with in the time it would take John McClane (Die Hard) to reach for his gun.
Violence and vengeance are not the end games here, nor is the criminal activity, which largely centres on the use of many of Brooklyn’s bars as “drops” – hence the film’s name – for mob money which is discreetly handed over the bartender on duty, placed in a concealed safe and cleared out in the early hours of the morning when no one is usually paying too much attention.
Rather they provide the context for the subtlely-expressed machinations of Bob’s life, whose quiet, unobtrusive demeanour masks a razor-sharp, well-informed mind, a past that suggests more familiarity with mob life than he is willingly to currently admit (hence his “I am just a bartender” mantra, which is repeated like some sort of catechism to ward off evil) and steely-eyed determination to keep it as faraway from his unremarkable present as possible.
Unfortunately as anyone who didn’t come down in the latest shower knows only too well, life is rarely accommodating enough to let vows like that go unchallenged, and The Drop slowly builds the tension towards the inevitable showdown between what Bob wants and what he will need to do to get it, via the unwelcome appearance of Nadia’s thuggish ex-con ex-boyfriend Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), Marvin’s behind-the-scenes manoeuvring to reclaim his self-perceived lost glory, the pesky poking around of police detective Torres (John Ortiz) and the swaggering menace of Chechen mob leader Chovka (Michael Aronov) and his second-in-command Andre (Morgan Spector).
That this showdown is over in less time than it takes to wash out a glass at the bar – although the build-up is gloriously, meticulously thorough, well thought out and paced – does not detract from its power to shock nor the threat it poses to Bob’s burgeoning relationship with the easily-frightened Nadia, emblematic of the new life he has tried so hard to fashion for himself far the life he once knew.
The Drop‘s ending suggests that it is possible to win from life’s unexpected twists and turns but that you will need to be of firm conviction with a spine of inner steel to make it happen and that you may in the process having to risk everything you have fought for to achieve what it is you really want.