The Drop Review
The Drop is the fourth adaptation of a Dennis Lehane’s fiction in eleven years. Previous adaptations of his work revitalised Clint Eastwood’s directorial career (Mystic River), helped with the rehabilitation of Ben Affleck (Gone Baby Gone) and gave Martin Scorsese a delightful playground to amuse himself with (Shutter Island). The thing that characterises these previous movies, including Shutter Island that I adore ending and all, is that they’re uniformly great. I don’t think a writer has had quite as good a batting average when it came to adaptations of their work.
As such I was eagerly anticipating The Drop.
The fact it was a new film by Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam (whose previous film Bullhead was a personal favourite back in 2011) and that the film was gifted with the last performance by the great James Gandolfini had me doubly excited. But keeping those expectations in check proved difficult and I admit that it took me twenty or thirty minutes to adjust myself to the film’s wavelength.
The Drop focuses on a pair of ‘coulda been somebody’ cousins Marv (Gandolfini) and Bob (Tom Hardy) who run a bar in Brooklyn. The bar ‘Cousin Marvs’ named after the owner is an occasional drop point for local mobsters, depositing large quantities of cash for later collection. Bob is happy just tending bar, whilst Marv pines for the days he was somebody When the bar is robbed and Bob inadvertently blabs to the police about one of the robbers identifiable watch the cousins find themselves being watched very closely by the Chechen gangsters whom they are loosely connected to.
If the above sounds like the making of a decent crime thriller then you went in with the same headstate I did and may need a similar amount of time to adjust. Crime permeates a lot of The Drop but it never particularly feels like a crime thriller. Instead the film is more concerned with reputation and the unique currency of social standing. Actual currency is a fleeting concern in the film, as displayed by the rather ‘off hand’ way that the film resolves an early plotline involving a missing $5k for the Chechens. In The DropStanding is important, standing is all anyone has.
As such Bob is an anomaly. Berated and picked at constantly by Marv for his apparent softness, and unconcerned with his tangential connection to ‘the life’, Bob seems content to just live life. As such he’s the calm centre of the film, whilst Marv is largely his twisted shadow. Discontent, intractable, and still unaccustomed to being a nobody despite his oh so brief tenure as a somebody.Marv is bluster and Bob is reality and they are an interesting duo. Helping highlight the difference between the two are the fantastic performances by Hardy and Gandolfini.
Gandolfini arguably has the easier role for two reasons. The first being the inherent showiness of the role. Marv is a character whose every waking moment is spent reacting to the world around him. Bristling at other guys, domineering Bob, tough guy bravado to the mob, prickly self righteousness to his family. Marv is the kind of character who has built a mountain out of the slights perpetrated against them, and every movement and glance seems defined by that. Secondly Marv doesn’t feel all that removed from Gandolfini’s most iconic character Tony Soprano. The childishness, brutishness and need to domineer all feel like natural extensions of the work Gandolfini did as everyone’s favourite absolute monster.
In comparison Hardy’s performance as Bob feels unlike anything he’s done before. Whilst Bob isn’t timid, there’s a lack of aggression and a general aversion to conflict that take a lot of getting used to. The closest Hardy has got to this sort of everyman character is as the title character in Locke and even that character doesn’t feel quite as subdued. As such Bob is a world away from the flashly Banes, Eames, Bronsons and Bondurants of his previous work, yet Hardy is magnetic in the role. There’s a conflicted humanity within Bob that is almost palpable,
Bob’s storyline is actually largely insulated from the events of the bar, his narrative focusing on the burgeoning relationship developing with Nadia (Noomi Rapace). The two bond over a badly beaten pitbull puppy that Bob rescues from a bin, their tentative relationship tested by the presence of Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts). Eric is a local criminal riding off his reputation as a killer and he butts heads with Bob over both Nadia and the puppy. If that sounds a little stupid then it probably is, but the mechanics of the narrative aren’t as important as the confrontations it causes. Eric is another example of reputation and ego, his anger at Bob not so much about the ownership of the puppy but the slight Bob’s unwillingness to give the dog back has caused. Schoenaerts had previously worked with Roskam before as the lead in Bullhead and his work in that film and 2012’s Rust and Bone had already made me think of him as kind of a Belgian Tom Hardy. As such the parallels that the film wishes us to draw between Bob and Eric feel right to me in a very specific way. Schoenaerts is fantastic in the role, using his physicality in really interesting ways. Eric is a character who is an aggravation, just dominating scenes and invading people's personal spaces at every moment. He drips with a kind of low key menace, despite communicating in nothing more than innocuous platitudes delivered with a quite extraordinary American accent.
Roskam wisely rests his film on the performances of his actors who all do great work. Only Rapace seems to struggle and the fault lies with the cipher nature of her character rather than her performance which is as strong as usual. In fact Rapace imbues Nadia with a steel and grit that makes the character work more than what’s on page, it just feels like shades of what we’ve seen from her before.
But whilst the actors are the main draw to the film, Roksam’s direction is impressively assured and at times quite subtly beautiful. There’s a mannered feel to the film, staged to get the best from the actor and with a great understanding of character dynamics and tensions. Roksamis able to frame a conversation in a way that builds tension without relying on quick cuts or obtrusive scores. He understands the value of stillness and calmness, and how they can be leveraged to grant even more tension to a sequence. A scene halfway through the film is a perfect example of that, framing the disposal of something incriminating in a still and quiet manner. This exemplifies the calm of Bob, who is being pragmatic and practical, and the bluster of Marv who agitatedly stomps around the frame. It’s just one example of the consistent understanding of power dynamics in the film. This consistent calmness also makes the more hectic third act much more powerful, the use of more camera tricks and more frantic movements perfectly capturing the escalating tensions and uncertainty of the finale.
The Drop is a worthy addition to the great run of Lehane adaptations. Focusing on character and allowing its two leads to absolutely shine. It’s a fitting final role for Gandolfini who brings an effortless depth to his character and it’s an absolute showcase for Hardy who shows he is just as capable at bringing quieter characters to life as he is flashier creations. For those wanting a crime thriller The Drop may prove a little too detached from the action, but if you bear with it there are riches to be found within.