In recent article in the New York Times, film critic A.O. Scott wrangles with a weighty topic that’s caused a lot of buzz online. The piece is titled, “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.” Scott uses, amongst other examples, hit shows the Sopranos and its thematic descendent Mad Men to help frame his mournful thesis. Both shows are a dissection of patriarchy, combating the classic idea of masculinity with the post-modern reality. The results, more often than not, show a protagonist (Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and even Walter White) confronting everyday troubles with equal parts immaturity and entitlement. The provocative article was very much on my mind while watching Michael K. Roskam’s latest film, The Drop, and not just because it’s Sopranos star James Gandolfini’s final film role. We see the same plots and characters from superior crime stories impiously recycled, and even if they’re enough to excite and shock, they aren’t the point. The Drop is a pertinent allegory for the male ego, whether that’s “feeling like a som-bahdy” or having a flexible moral code you insist is absolute.
This is the first screenplay by famous author Dennis Lehane, who wrote the books that spawned excellent adaptations Shutter Island, Gone Baby Gone, and Mystic River. The Drop, based on Lehane’s book of the same name, shows an interesting trend in 2014 for authors to adapt their own books (Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is another example). Instead of focusing on the ritz-glitz, high-end crime seen in Goodfellas or The Sopranos, The Drop is ardently blue collar. The main character, Bob (Tom Hardy), isn’t a slick, badass, rough-em-up type with a leather jacket and a crowbar in the trunk; he’s a bartender. Soft spoken, gentle, church-going, and introspective, his immediate concern isn’t collecting from schmucks who haven’t paid up but knowing the best kind of whiskey. He works at a bar run by his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), and it’s a drop point for laundering money for the Chechen mob.
The story can be divided into two parts that may or may not connect. The first revolves around the bar and the men who, of course, want to rip it off. Two masked men wielding weapons burst into the bar demanding money and make off with five grand. The Drop is so working class that a 5,000 buck rip-off still means something, and the plot begins with a search for who was behind it. The second is unique and, to those not familiar with the film or book ahead of time, might be surprising. A large portion of The Drop is concerned with animal rescue. Specifically, the rescue of an adorable puppy that’s found beaten in the garbage can of a beautiful woman named Nadia (Noomi Rapace). After lecturing Bob on the institutional problems with animal rescue, he agrees to take the pup in. I suspect this plot thread was used for two reasons: 1.) To make The Drop qualify as an “issue” film, 2.) To create an all-encompassing symbol through way of the dog.
The Drop starts off slow, but you’re instantly aware the fuse has been lit. It’s a slow burn that begins only flirting with danger and menace, so tension builds naturally. Eventually, it explodes, and the bloodshed feels earned. It may be a little too slow, but the unhurried pace gives breathing room for the filmmakers to develop both the setting and the characters, and it pays off. The three central characters, Bob, Marv, and Nadia, are all unusually well developed for a pulpy crime drama, and the quality of acting elevates the material. Gandolfini could have easily channeled Tony Soprano, but he doesn’t. It’s in the writing, but he plays Marv with a self-loathing and weakness Tony would rarely show. Gandolfini was such a pro that the slightest glances communicate a well of emotion, and his longing to have been something more is always poignant, if petty. It’s such a sadness he’s passed away, but like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Gandolfini’s final performance is a wonderful showpiece for why he’s a timeless talent. Noomi Rapace’s Nadia gives a correspondingly expressive performance, and gives tragedy and feeling to what could have seemed like a one-and-a-half note character. She has terrific chemistry with Tom Hardy, and without her the film wouldn’t have worked.
But make no mistake, this is Hardy’s film from start to finish. He owns it. With each performance, Hardy gets a little closer to earning his oft-comparison with Marlon Brando. His range and talent is extraordinary, and not many actors can deliver two fantastic performances in a single year (the other is Locke, which remains his best). His acting is one of specificity and detail, such as a moment where he slips from calm mannered bartender to Bane and back again with subtle shifts in his face. This man will one day have an Oscar.
The Drop takes place in a deglamorized vision of Brooklyn where psychopaths walk freely and crime is rampant. It’s an obviously heightened setting that sucks out any realism the film hoped to have. Despite this, the film proves, if nothing else, that realism doesn’t have to be a synonym with believability. The ridiculous setting (one that’s admittedly fun to inhabit for two hours) doesn’t undermine the validity of the main characters. This is, no doubt, largely indebted to the very human performances. It’s just that the setting isn’t all that tarnishes the film’s sense of realism. The plot is rife with Dickensian coincidence, and everything fits together too neatly to ever feel like real life. This doesn’t have to be a problem, but Lehane’s script feels like clumsy storytelling instead of cosmic fate. Despite the messy zigzag trajectory of the plot, The Drop features the rare climax to elevate everything that came before it. In its final moments, Lehane and Roskam give the illusion everything fits into a whole, and the final shot is well chosen and satisfying. Ultimately, The Drop may steal its plot from films of a much higher caliber, but it still packs a powerful pulpy punch.
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