Toronto 2014: After his knockout debut “Bullhead,” Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam’s first venture in U.S. filmmaking throws together a familiar collection of mobsters, lowlifes (including James Gandolfini in his final role) and broken souls
The local mobsters are now Chechen instead of Russian (or Italian), but beyond that “The Drop” feels fairly interchangeable with just about any movie of the past three or so decades that deals with neighborhood crime lords, seedy lowlifes looking to get ahead, and the damaged souls they leave in their wake.
At one point during the press screening, in fact, I almost jotted down “watered-down Dennis Lehane” until I remembered that Lehane himself actually wrote this script, based on his short story “Animal Rescue.”
If “The Drop” fails to excite as a crime saga, it does at least offer one interesting character: bartender Bob Saginowski, played with gently brutal efficacy by Tom Hardy, an actor who continues to demonstrate his skill at playing a variety of characters in a multitude of genres. (His turn in this year’s “Locke” remains one of the most electrifying film performances in recent memory.)
We meet Bob in what at first seems like a Screenwriting 101 ploy to make the character more likable: he rescues an abused puppy from a garbage can belonging to waitress Nadia (Noomi Rapace). She’s dubious of this interloper at first — photographing his license and texting it to four friends, just in case — but she helps him care for the poor dog (whom Bob names “Rocco”), and these two people, neither of whom is much of a talker, start growing close.
Bob works at a popular neighborhood bar called “Cousin Marv’s,” and it’s actually owned by his cousin, Marv (James Gandolfini, in his final performance) — or at least it used to be, before the Chechen mobsters took over. Marv used to run his own crew back in the day; now he just charms the customers and supervises the “drops,” the deposits of bookie money that get left at the bar until someone higher up in the organization comes to collect.
It’s winter in New York City, and the chill winds seem to bring nothing but bad news; Bob’s local parish (where he faithfully attends mass but never takes communion) is being sold; Marv’s bar gets held up, which makes the Chechens lean on Marv and Bob to make up the missing money; and the very creepy Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts, “Rust and Bone”), who has past connections with both Nadia and Rocco, starts lurking about and threatening Bob.
“The Drop” offers up some twists as we get to know Bob and discover what lurks beneath his placid surface, but his character is about the only substance that the movie can muster. Not that the performances aren’t consistently magnetic: Belgian Schoenaerts, who previously worked with director Michaël R. Roskam on “Bullhead,” brings equal conviction to playing skeevy and playing American, and Gandolfini’s never-was wiseguy is about a million steps behind Tony Soprano on the organized-crime food chain.
(Ann Dowd turns up in a few scenes as Marv’s sister, and as critic Louis Peitzman recently observed, his suggestion for “The Leftovers” and “Masters of Sex” and pretty much every other show on TV is “Needs more Ann Dowd.” The same could be said for “The Drop.”)
Much of the excitement about “Bullhead” was Roskam’s virtuosity at taking us into a non-clichéd crime milieu — underground bovine hormone smuggling! — and in fully fleshing out characters that were far more complex than the usual cops and robbers. Those skills don’t get much of a workout here, and to make matters worse, Marco Beltrami’s score continually bursts out to inform the audience how they’re supposed to be feeling, guiding the action with all the subtlety of a road flare.
Ultimately, this is Tom Hardy‘s show, and any opportunity to see this actor exercise his skills merits attention. He, along with the rest of this top-notch ensemble, give “The Drop” far more than they get back.