Dennis Lehane knows how to tell a good crime story. His best-selling novels include Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone, both of which found even bigger audiences and won multiple awards in their feature-film adaptations. Lehane earned Writer’s Guild of America and Edgar awards for his work on David Simon’s HBO series The Wire, but he had never written a screenplay until The Drop. Adapted from Lehane’s short story Animal Rescue, The Drop has all the author’s signature elements: it’s a streetwise, tough-as-nails story of working class people in marginal neighborhoods facing life-or-death situations. It’s a bit light on plot but rich and subtle as a character study, as if Lehane had finally found the broad canvas he needed to bring his literary characters to life. It doesn’t hurt that Belgian director Michael R. Roskam (the Oscar-nominated Bullhead) assembled an ideal cast for the film, including the great James Gandolfini in what turned out to be his final performance.
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Though almost all of Lehane’s stories come from the Boston streets where he grew up, The Drop finds its place in outer-borough Brooklyn, among neighborhoods still unchanged by gentrification. Old-school bar Cousin Marv’s is owned by the Chechen mafia and randomly serves as a “drop” for the day’s illicit proceeds. Marv (Gandolfini) runs the bar, but he remembers better times — before the mob muscled in — when he ran his own small-time crew and had the neighborhood’s respect. Lonely and soft-spoken Bob (Tom Hardy) tends the bar. His life begins to change when he finds a bruised and beaten dog in a trashcan outside the home of the mysterious Nadia (Noomi Rapace). Neighborhood tensions escalate when masked gunmen rob Cousin Marv’s, bringing a series of events that force the characters to confront past demons and attempt to repair broken lives. There’s always an unspoken shot at redemption for the people in Lehane’s world, especially those most forgotten or seemingly unworthy.
There’s a timeless, almost fable-like quality to The Drop that belies the harshness of its story. No time period is specified, and only the occasional flat-screen TV or late-model car keeps the film from coming across as a circa-1970 period piece. Director Roskam and cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis even used the paintings of early 20th century American-urban realist George Wesley Bellows as inspiration. As effective as it is, this setting mainly provides a backdrop for Lehane’s flesh-and-blood characters. Rapace (the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone) — who plays Eric Deeds, the neighborhood sociopath — work wonders with spare dialogue. But the movie evolves into a tour-de-force for English actor Tom Hardy. From featured roles in films like Inception and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to his turn as the villain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, Hardy has quietly become one of the movies’ finest actors.
The story moves away from Gandolfini’s Marv, but that only allows the actor to do what he did best: work solely for the greater good of whatever project he took on. He brings a deep humanity to the troubled Marv. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting swan song for James Gandolfini than The Drop.
The Drop starts today, Friday, Sept. 12, at the Canal Place and Elmwood Palace theaters.