The Drop shouldn’t work. It’s a simple story, so simple that it has been beefed up from its original short story format into a feature length film. It’s a pretty cut and dry story about how some money goes missing from some generally decent, if slightly crooked people. It’s so leisurely that the actual main plot thread gets wrapped up quite conveniently about 45 minutes into the film. It should be a sign that a film and a story has no idea what it’s doing or where it wants to go.
But then the English language cinema debut of Michaël R. Roskam (Bullhead) does something really cool. It examines how and why the main plot wrapped up so quickly. The film’s biggest and most rewarding shell game is tricking the audience into thinking there’s a plot, when they’re really watching a deep, twisty character study. It’s emotionally rich, smartly paced, and unlike most thrillers that get produced these days. It’s not complex enough to confound audiences, but the structure makes it rise a cut above these usual big city noirs where tough guys glower at one another.
Bob (Tom Hardy) keeps his head down, stays quiet, and tends bar at a Brooklyn watering hole known for being a pick up and drop off point for laundered mob and bookie cash. He has a less than stellar track record with his indebted and constantly pissy boss (James Gandolfini, in his final onscreen performance) and the only companion he really has is a pit bull puppy that he rescued from the garbage can of a skeptical neighbourhood woman (Noomi Rapace). He grows attached to both the woman and the dog, His life is pretty unremarkable until a pair of coincidences happen: the bar gets held up and the former owner of the dog, a depraved nut job with a murder conviction he gloats about (Matthias Schoenaerts) wants the pooch and ex-girlfriend back,leaving Bob in an uncomfortably dangerous position all around.
The main story, regarding the money, gets resolved early, and it spoils nothing to say that. Novelist Dennis Lehane (whose work previously served as guidelines for Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island) gets a chance to adapt his own short story Animal Rescue into something larger, and the title of the original story really reflects more on the type of film Roskam is trying to produce. It’s a film about people who need rescuing from themselves and their demons. Everyone has something they have been hiding that needs to be addressed more than the potential loss of life over money and pets.
Hardy does a fine job playing a loner who secretly wants more out of life. Schoenaerts steals every scene he’s in as the lumbering lug who might be overcompensating because he confuses fear with respect. Gandolfini exudes weariness as a lifelong screw up running out of options. Rapace brings an element of fragility to her hardened and formerly abused survivor. Even the dog is wonderful.
It’s the perfect cast and material for Roskam to make the jump to bigger projects with because it’s exactly the same kind of character drama with a criminal element that he tried to make with Bullhead, and he does an even finer job here. It’s a film that’s building towards a huge reveal (and it’s a doozy), but it never makes the reveal the only thing worth talking about. It allows the audience into the lives of the characters without focusing too specifically on what they need to do to fix their situations. Visually and tonally, The Drop simultaneously feels unforced and exciting. It’s the rare example of a thriller that can stay loose without unravelling.