Michaël R. Roskam’s English-language directorial debut, The Drop, comes with some impressive credentials. It was written by Dennis Lehane — adapted from his own short story, “Animal Rescue” — and boasts a cast headed by Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace and James Gandolfini. (It is, in fact, the last new film we’ll ever see with Gandolfini.) Also on board is the star of Roskam’s first film, Bullhead (2011), Matthias Schoenaerts. It should be the perfect crossover from art film to mainstream hit, and maybe it will be in terms of the box office. Fox Searchlight believes it will, since they’re moving it from limited to fairly wide release. The problem is that it’s beautifully crafted, atmospheric, sometimes startling — and yet somehow not the masterpiece you might reasonably expect. It’s good, and it will almost certainly hold your interest with its twists and turns. But there’s an inescapable sense that The Drop — with all its atmosphere and its low-rent “dese-dem-and-dose” Brooklynese trimmings — ought to be special, and not just a more elegant take on the kind of 1970s crime film Sidney Lumet used to make. Ultimately, that’s all it is — and it may be enough to satisfy, if you dial down your expectations a little.
The film takes place in some little corner of non-gentrified Brooklyn — a little bit like the insular world of God’s Pocket from earlier this year, only better accomplished — and is centered on the doings at a bar called Cousin Marv’s. Though still run by Marv (Gandolfini), the bar now belongs to some Chechen gangsters who use it as a drop for the takings of their network of bookies, retaining the embittered Marv as a kind of figurehead. Helping him is his cousin, Bob Saginowski (Hardy), a taciturn, expressionless, possibly even simpleminded fellow who we guess early on is more than he seems. (How much more is another matter.) Though Marv is in charge — constantly bemoaning the fact that he used to command respect and fear, as if the two are interchangeable — it becomes evident pretty quickly that Bob is by far the more levelheaded of the two.
This is one side of the plot. The other involves Bob finding an abused and injured pit bull puppy (he refers to it as a boxer) in a garbage can belonging to a similarly battered waitress, Nadia (Rapace). This is the movie’s version of a “meet cute,” and it works better than it should, drawing the two — and the dog — together. However, this also draws the attention of a plainly unhinged thug, Eric Deeds (Schoenaerts), who used to be Nadia’s abusive boyfriend, and who put the dog in the garbage can in the first place. All of this will eventually come together with another plan that involves robbing Cousin Marv’s on the night of the Super Bowl when the drop will be in excess of a million dollars. It is this event that climaxes the film and explains much that has only been suggested over the course of the story. More than that you shouldn’t know before seeing it.
In most respects, the story works on a basic level — and it definitely earns bonus points for not indulging in the hoariest of all movie cliches (which I won’t reveal), yet constantly leaving it hanging over the proceedings as a threat. (At one point, The Drop even teases the viewer that the threat has come to pass.) The ultimate revelations are finely integrated into the fabric of the story and don’t feel forced in any way. The performances are fine, and, yes, a posthumous Oscar could be in the cards for Gandolfini, even though Marv is the sort of role he could have played without even trying. That he makes it more than it is, however, counts for much. But when all this is put together, it’s vaguely unsatisfying. Perhaps it’s because The Drop lacks the depth, dark humor and rich complexity of Roskam’s Bullhead, but I think it’s really just the fact that all this talent should have produced a truly stunning movie. Instead, it merely produced a good one. Rated R for some strong violence and pervasive language.