2014, Michael R. Roskam
On paper, The Drop had all the right elements to be one of the best films of the year. The second feature from Belgian director Michael R. Roskam, hot off of his cracking, Oscar-nominated debut Bullhead, it’s been adapted to the screen by author Dennis Lehane (my all-time favorite) from his own short story “Animal Rescue” and stars a dynamite cast that is topped by Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini (in his last screen appearance) and Bullhead's breakout star Matthias Schoenaerts. The plot concerns a Brooklyn bar that's run by Hardy's Bob Saginowski and Gandofini's Cousin Marv and is used at random by the local gangsters as a drop bar for their dirty money. When a duo of robbers hit up the place, many different entities converge that threaten the well-being of Saginowski and Marv, who look to find their way through a difficult time in an area where everyone knows everyone and no one is truly safe. The Drop has plenty of elements typical of many crime dramas that we’ve seen throughout the years, but Lehane’s taken similarly familiar-sounding stories before and made them sing with new depths in works like Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River — novels which were brought to the screen in tremendous fashion.
Unfortunately, The Drop can’t quite live up to its lofty potential. While Roskam does imbue the atmosphere with a sense of lived-in crime and the nefarious characters that map out the treacherous narrative feel genuine thanks to a convincing ensemble cast, there’s too often that sense of over-familiarity that bogs down the film in a feeling like we’ve been here many times and seen it done much better much too often. It’s never a bad film by any means, but for a long stretch of time it does feel like a resoundingly mediocre one — until, that is, a late in the game reveal that turns everything on its head and elevates the picture to a new level. This big moment, which won’t be spoiled here, is a masterful touch that turns The Drop into a deceptively meticulous picture that builds a lot of little moments up into something special that can only be fully appreciated once you see the full scope of Lehane’s script. It’s hard to go into detail without spoiling the move, but suffice it to say that my disappointment in the picture up to that point was quickly turned on its head in this reveal that changed everything for these characters and Roskam’s film.
While that turn does elevate The Drop from a mediocre film to a good one, there’s still a bit too much working against it for it to match up to something of the caliber one would expect given the talent of those involved. The plot does resolve itself nicely thanks to this, but it remains a bit messy in bringing all of its dispersed characters together in a cohesive fashion. A big aspect of the film relies too much on a random coincidence which is always a pet peeve of mine, leading to a subplot that could have been removed without any narrative consequence, but at the same time it’s this part of The Drop that gives it a tender heart which allows for a deeper emotional meaning. Early in the picture, Saginowski stumbles upon a small puppy that’s been beaten up and left in the trash can of Nadia (Rapace), a local waitress, and after he pulls it out and the two clean it off they strike up a kinship that is touching and played in charmingly low-key fashion by the two actors. Of course, there was a reason why a bloody dog was in a trash can in the first place, and it’s not long before the arrival of Nadia’s former flame Eric (Schoenaerts) throws a wrench in Saginowski’s carefully controlled life and it’s this aspect of the plot that feels a little too conveniently inserted and rubbed me the wrong way a bit, given where it all eventually leads.
Lehane’s script expertly measures out its depiction of Saginowski and the way that it drops little hints for the major reveal and the deeper meanings of so many small moments over the course of the film is brilliantly done, and masterfully played by Hardy who has been having a great year, but the other characters could have used more texture in their development. A lot of work is put into making Saginowski a very thought-out character and it pays off tremendously well, though you don’t get the full appreciation until the film is over, but the rest of the cast isn’t as fortunate in getting as memorable of material as Hardy is gifted by the script. Nadia and Eric in particular feel far too much like one-note cliches that you see all the time in these kind of moody crime dramas (the tough damsel with the bad news ex and the ex himself who comes along and threatens the happy new coupling just because he’s a bad guy) and despite Rapace and Schoenaerts’ considerable talent (the latter really has a presence that few actors can match these days), they can’t quite raise up the lacking quality in the writing. Gandolfini also has disappointingly little to work with in his final role (he was much better in last year’s Enough Said), though he does far better than the rest of the cast, barring Hardy.
The one element that could have perhaps used the most additional work though is the involvement of the police, headed in this case by Detective Torres, played by the vastly undervalued character actor John Ortiz. Torres floats in and out of the picture from time to time, with a nice little touch of recognition with Saginowski in the fact that they go to the same mass every week but have never spoken, and yet there’s never a sense of knowing this character or his place in the world. A lot of times it actually feels like The Drop had scenes that were awkwardly cut out of the film, many of them being ones that I think would have given more room to expand on Torres’ position in this world and his impact on the narrative itself. Yet in order to contain itself to a well-paced running time (and the movie does run itself quite well in terms of never losing focus or attention), things remain primarily centered on Saginowski and for all its faults it is in this character where the true value of The Drop lies. I can’t say I’ve been a fan of Hardy’s acting in previous years, and at first his performance here did feel a bit too tic-y for me to appreciate, but his work hinges on and justifies itself in that stunning moment that proves what an ace performance he’s giving at the core of Roskam’s picture. After taking sole control of the screen in Steven Knight’s Locke earlier this year, this is the second Hardy performance in a row that I’ve found an admiration for and I’m pleased to see the actor taking on more challenging, less obvious characters that allow him to play with and subvert his dominating macho presence in unexpected ways.
A Brooklyn crime drama with this cast, directed by Roskam and written by Lehane in his first feature screenplay (he’s written some for HBO shows The Wire and Boardwalk Empire) should have been an event film for me, but The Drop ultimately remains a little too undercooked and over-familiar to amount to more than the sum of its parts. Everyone involved does quality work, with Hardy in particular adding another impressive performance to an already noteworthy year, but what’s most disappointing about the film is simply that it had all the right elements for something far more memorable. That being said, hinging itself so fundamentally on that one major moment was something that added great benefit to the overall product and a bit of a risk to everything that came before. On reflection I find myself liking the film more and more as it sits with me, while the experience of watching it had been slightly disappointing up until that point. There are so many little moments of character detail peppered in that can only be appreciated when all is said and done, and in doing so The Drop reveals itself to be slightly more unique than I was initially finding it, but even outside of this deceptively intelligent maneuver there are still a few too many struggling elements for me to be able to stand up and praise it as highly as I would like to. Roskam’s film is one that’s certainly worth seeing, though perhaps not one that will last in the mind as long as it should.