The kind of solid, honest-feeling mean-streets movie you might think they only make in Boston these days, Michael R. Roskam‘s The Drop was, in fact, set there before filmmakers decided to shake things up by moving it to Brooklyn. The anthology Boston Noir is the source of Dennis Lehane‘s short story “Animal Rescue,” in which a tender-hearted man with a past gets into trouble after finding a pit-bull puppy in a garbage can. The move smacks of some kind of calculation, and requires the filmmakers to amalgamate the borough’s remaining condo-free corners into a fantasy of the working-class place it used to be, but that’s beside the point: The city isn’t the star of the film, neither is Lehane’s excellent dialogue, nor is Roskam, here making a sure-footed jump to America after his Belgian debut Bullhead: The picture belongs to Tom Hardy, whose astonishingly sensitive performance even the great James Gandolfini steps gently around. As he helped do in Warrior, Hardy takes an already fine genre film and adds ballast, making you forget how many times you’ve heard the tale. The picture should play equally well at multiplexes and with critics, paving the way for Roskam to make more personal movies on these shores.
Hardy is Bob, bartender at a place run by (and named for) his cousin Marv (Gandolfini). Marv used to own it before some Chechen mobsters made him a mere figurehead; now it’s one of many watering holes that, on any given night, might be designated as the temporary bank for the gang’s illicit cash. When it’s your night, envelopes full of bills come across the bar throughout business hours and go into a time-release safe; the big guys come around in the early morning, collect, and your blood pressure can return to normal until next time.
Marv, still resentful about the takeover, wants to engineer a hold-up of his own bar on drop night. He’s smart enough not to involve Bob (who’d be smart enough to say no) but that doesn’t make him wise: A trial run, in which some unseasoned hoods rob the till on his behalf, both angers the Chechens and draws the interest of Detective Torres (John Ortiz), who recognizes Bob from his church. Attempting to distance himself from any controversy, Bob focuses on the abused pup he just found and the stranger, Nadia (Noomi Rapace), who is unexpectedly helping him care for it. But even this charitable effort stirs up trouble: Neighborhood creep Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts) starts stalking him, making claims on the dog and suggesting a connection with Nadia as well.
As Marv, Gandolfini points toward a place he might have staked out in crime films had he lived longer: We see the characters who are far from the center of power, men who’ve missed opportunities real or imagined but are desperate enough to make a final play. (In this alternate, better reality, of course, he would also lead meaty nongenre movies and find scores of unforgettable small parts like the one he played in In the Loop.)
Lehane’s fat-trimmed script, whose dialogue sometimes recalls his work on The Wire, is full of backstory that’s hinted at just enough for us to imagine the rest for ourselves. Its weakest spot is Nadia, who despite a little detail exists mainly as a gift from God for Bob that Deeds will try to take away. There’s a way in which knowing so little about her is appropriate — Bob, who can serve people beer all night without confiding in anyone, can hardly get her phone number, much less grow intimate with her over these few nervous days. But it’s telling that Lehane’s between-the-lines work is much more suggestive when it comes to Deeds, a more peripheral character.
As for Bob, neither the screenplay nor the actor playing him is eager to pin him down. He was part of “a crew” in his youth, we know; today, he cares enough about a stray dog to stand up to serious intimidation for its sake. Is he a dormant man of violence; a reformed softie; a loyal but socially awkward lonelyheart? He might be all three. But wondering how he’s going to handle the mess Marv is creating makes The Drop worthwhile.
Production company: Chernin Entertainment
Cast: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini, Matthias Schoenaerts, John Ortiz, Ann Dowd
Director: Michael R. Roskam
Screenwriter: Dennis Lehane
Producers: Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping
Executive producers: Mike Larocca, M. Blair Breard, Dennis Lehane
Director of photography: Nicolas Karakatsanis
Production designer: Therese DePrez
Costume designer: David Robinson
Editor: Christopher Tellefsen
Music: Marco Beltrami
Rated R, 106 minutes