The stories of novelist Dennis Lehane are noted for their specificity, rooted in a place – often, seedy, blue-collar Boston neighborhoods – and a time, usually the aftermath of a harsh, violent event. Several of his crackling stories of lurid crime and behavior have been memorably adapted to the screen – Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone – and kept the author’s pulpy dialogue and pulsating plots intact in the transition.
The Drop, which Lehane adapts to the screen from his short story Animal Rescue, is a different beast. It is a drama so low-key and plodding in comparison to his other works, that it is hard to understand why he chose to translate this minor tale in the first place. Here, he ditches Boston for Brooklyn, although the rusty storefronts, abandoned lots and grey skies present here sometimes make it hard to tell the difference.
The focus in this adaptation is on Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy), a soft-spoken bartender. He works at a joint called Cousin Marv’s, a neighborhood staple owned by Bob’s actual cousin Marv (James Gandolfini, in his final screen role). Cousin Marv’s sometimes serves as a “drop bar,” with a safe that launders the dirty money of the city’s most corrupt mobsters. When the bar is robbed one evening, tensions come to a boil between Bob, Marv and the Chechen gangsters who suspect the robbery was an inside job.
As Bob keeps his eye peeled for shady types following him in the wake of the robbery, he also ignites a friendship with Nadia (Noomi Rapace). One night, he hears a whimpering from a garbage can in her yard, only to find an injured brown pit-bull puppy inside. Bob accepts ownership of the dog, which he names Rocco – named after the saint, a protector of contagious disease – but he requests Nadia to look after it when he is tending the bar. Slowly, she sees something more kindred in her shy, soft-spoken friend with a tough exterior, hoping he can protect her from a menacing ex-boyfriend, Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts), who has abused her in the past.
The Drop registers along the same lines as Lehane’s works thematically. There is the presence of religion, as well as a lack of hope in its restorative power. Bob attends church but hesitates to participate in communion, a possible sign of his guilt from a past sin he is having trouble addressing. The church is about to be sold off, too – but it is not like the bars are doing any better. Meanwhile, the loyalty between criminal parties is omnipresent in the dilapidated Brooklyn ghetto where Marv does his business. Marv shows a reluctance to warm up to anybody, whether it’s his bartender or a sister struggling with tending to his father, trembling along on life support; however, he is eager to keep his crowd of criminal regulars happy.
Director Michael. R. Roskam (the Oscar-nominated Bullhead) dulls down Lehane’s hard-boiled atmosphere. Whereas the author’s novels are specific, the setting here is vague, the rough working-class neighbourhood curiously emptying of passersby and lacking any sort of identifiable personality. (With the exception of some New York sports paraphernalia clothing the bar, the film’s setting could be easily misconstrued as grungy Boston.)
Further, the lack of precision with the camerawork and the restrained performances could be a sign that The Drop had a short production period, where the director and actors had to move on before finessing moments that could have used more takes. In one moment, a shaky handheld camera lurks around a corner as it watches Bob and Nadia walk into her home, but the trembling camera jars us, taking one out of the moment. Meanwhile, the central relationship between Hardy and Rapace seems under-rehearsed. The Swedish actor puts more of her effort into nailing the regional dialect than adding layers to her character and finding chemistry with Hardy. Bob and Nadia show more attachment to the bulldog they are taking care of than each other.
As the wounded Bob, Hardy gives an uncharacteristically uncharismatic turn, one that resonates when an old secret comes to the fore near the end. This moment of revelation has a sting in its tail that opens up the character’s low-key personality, but it is also a rare moment of energy and insight that the rest of Lehane’s screenplay is curiously missing. Also, Gandolfini gives a strong turn as Marv, trying to fight for his name and retain the same might he used to boast around Brooklyn. “At least I had something once,” Gandolfini munches in one of the film’s most powerful moments. “I was feared.”
The morally complex turn from the late actor, which has shades of his iconic turn as Tony Soprano on HBO, is another of The Drop’s low-key pleasures. However, the film’s biggest standout is not Hardy or Gandolfini, but the brutish, bleary-eyed Schoenaerts. The Belgian actor, on the cusp of a major career outside of Europe, brings unhinged menace that turns the story in an unpredictable direction.
However, unlike his solid foreign cast, Roskam does not bring much of a European sensibility to this gritty, American drama. Lehane’s story likely works better on the page than on the screen, only bursting to life in its final act when some repressed character information comes to light. A variety of colorful performances aside, The Drop is a thriller that is missing a pulse and is too padded to resonate near the level of the author’s superior works. It’s not an awful film by any means, but it could have used more of an atmosphere, which Lehane does not provide, and a sense of direction, which Roskam fails to offer.