Dennis Lehane’s hard-boiled, finely-rendered crime and suspense novels have never gotten a great film adaptation. Something about the translation of SHUTTER ISLAND, GONE BABY GONE, and even the much-vaunted MYSTIC RIVER – all fine movies, to be sure – seemed a little askew, and a pale imitation of his tense, hard-bitten prose. After sitting through THE DROP, I’m wont to believe that the issue was simply that Lehane didn’t have a hand in the scriptwriting.
Outside of some unnecessary voiceover, Lehane puts together a nearly-perfect script that feels like a striptease happening in front of you. Each layer of the plot is carefully and tantalizingly peeled away until the naked truth is standing in front of you 100 minutes later. And it is damn hot.
The other key distinction between THE DROP and the other Lehane adaptations is that this film has a surprisingly warm heart beating amid the shocking acts of violence and the grit of Brooklyn. This tenderness comes in the guise of Bob, a Terry Maloy-like barkeep with working class roots trailing behind him for miles. Played to perfection by the always welcome Tom Hardy, you’re never quite sure through the majority of the film just who this quiet, shuffling gent is. His calm and reserve, and unflinching understanding of right and wrong, paints him as someone with a developmental disability. But to watch him take on otherwise gruesome tasks like disposing of a person’s severed arm with precision hints that much more is going on behind his quiet demeanor and somewhat blank expression.
The arm belonged at one point to a stick up man, who one cold evening holds up Cousin Marvin’s Bar, the dive where Bob is employed. The establishment is the titular drop point, a kind of way station for the various arms of an organized crime family to hold on to ill-gotten gains. The robbery ends up being planned by the bar’s namesake, a gruff figure who used to command respect and fear in the neighborhood, but has since fallen on hard times and lost his watering hole to a batch of Chechen gangsters.
In the form of James Gandolfini (in what turned out to be unfortunately his final film role), Marvin becomes a tragic figure of Mamet-esque proportions, all wheezing breath and unrestrained contempt at the world. He has a back story involving trying to help keep his beloved father in a top flight nursing home, but really his motivation for the theft is just to try to gain back some of the ground he lost. That he never seems to get any purchase on the people whose thumb he is under only adds to the desperation.
For Bob, this runs secondary to his biggest concern: a beaten and scared pitbull puppy he rescues from a neighbor’s garbage can. The dog – and his burgeoning relationship with Nadia (Noomi Rapace), the woman whose trash he had to upend to save the pup – gives him, at long last, a sense of purpose. A man apparently without a family to speak of, Bob now feels connected to some deeper emotions than he likely thought possible. So when a sketchy outsider wanders into the scene and threatens the safety of these battered creatures, he uses every means at his disposal to protect them.
What never leaves this film is a sense of dread, that feeling that you know bad things are around the corner for everyone who plays a part in this melodrama. Lehane and director Michaël Roskam do an amazing job of keeping you guessing as to when that other shoe will fall. Add to it the dark, almost seamy picture of Brooklyn painted by cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis who bathes everything in dull greys and off-white, shot through with strange blasts of color, and the film is perfectly immersive and reverberates through the senses for hours afterward.