A series of dives make The Drop. Bent, black and blood money is deposited behind the scenes of a bar pre-ordained as the ‘Drop’. Only this bar happens to belong to James Gandolfini (Cousin Marv), making his final big screen appearance before his untimely death last summer. The Drop has haphazardly, unwillingly or perhaps even ingeniously, invented a whole new genre: the gentle gangster film. Yes, there are smatterings, splaterrings of blood, from severed hands to hit and runs, but it remains generally genteel, almost distractingly coy. And boy, the dodgy, dogged distraction of a dog dogs the narrative of a film that is the extended cut of Dennis Lehane’s novella: Animal Rescue. As with Oscar Isaac’s ginger tabby from Inside Llewyn Davis, so too does Tom Hardy’s Bob Saginowski cradle his proudly procured Pit Bull Terrier like a human pouch for a Paris Hilton pooch.
From poodle to puddle: the film’s opening shot features a rippling reflection of the Brooklyn Bridge on a streetlight lit night time sidewalk. New York is the vessel for the film, but it is no cruise liner sheen, glossy advert for the city. Manhattan’s might appears only once as a backdrop for a bag drop. The Drop is the B-side of New York; anathema to the high rise city. Shot in the blue-collar neighbourhoods of Marine Park, Fort Greene and Windsor Terrace, it offers a vestige of the Brooklyn underworld. One in which the weather is cold, the people colder and the colour palette ranges from pallid pastilles to pitchy black. Michaël R. Roskam cited a Metropolitan retrospective on early twentieth century realist artist George Bellows as an influence; while the director encapsulates some of the wintry washes, he ignores the cacophonous riot of people and colour that is the artist’s signature. Instead, Roskam focuses on the city as a backdrop for the isolation of a lonely metropolitan man; all empty boulevards and desert suburbs shrouded in grey days and impenetrable nights.
Yet, if writer Lehane and Belgian director Roskam yearn for a noirish inflection to their work, it falls flat beneath the tongue-in-cheek levity that denies the film its pretensions of suspense and climactic thrills. Despite cutting his teeth in some of America’s premier programmes, including The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, Lehane’s first screenplay is a strange breed. The action is offset by a fledgling romance story. Linked by the lost and found dog, the bizarre love triangle is between the broody, but beautiful Nadia (the Swede, Noomi Rapace), phantom former flame of self-ordained psycho killer, Eric Reed (Belgian baddie, Matthias Schoenaerts) and our protagonist, Bob Sagonowski. As Bob, the boyish Tom Hardy is hardly tom boy, but weirdly effete in a world of hard men and bristling beanies. He is the exception to the macho world of the mafia. Bane or Bronson, this is not.
Hardy has hardly put a foot wrong over the past decade, creating a transatlantic enterprise so attractive to a broad range of filmmakers. Hardy is not at fault here, either. His, lighter, unctuous, chocolate drawl of an accent balances the bass Brooklynite bark of his fellows. His character, Bob, is so soft and cuddly in a wardrobe of over-sized crate shirts that it becomes inconceivable that he is the epicentre of such an unlikely world. Hardy becomes hard to distinguish from his new bosom buddy Rocco (the dog), as those naïve, puppy eyes and creased forehead gaze out of the screen. All these traits are perfect for the character, but the character is the problem. Bob is a weird hybrid of forces that are elusively difficult to decipher. The audience is left to decide whether this loner is a complete simpleton; just a nice, charming guy; a puritanical Catholic; an autistic accomplice or the brains of the operation. The payoff at the end is excellent and to some the multi-faceted Bob will be compelling, but the competing characteristics are also plain frustrating.
Hardy’s partnership with Gandolfini is a pleasing pairing. The two bristle onscreen with an unspoken, awkward quality which mirrors their world of deceit and intrigue so astutely. They are relatives, but neither is complicit in the other’s deeper, darkest motives. They find each other confusing, but are fused together by shared fate when Cousin Marv’s bar is jumped. For all the hidden depth behind Hardy’s Bob, Gandolfini’s Cousin Marv is the archetypal former mobster. In theory, he is desperate for a final fling to relive his gangster glory days. In reality, he is a walking dinosaur in a mafia world that has moved from the Godfather’s typically Neapolitan or Sicilian gangs into the nightmare realm of the chiselled Chechen. Cousin Marv is Tony Soprano, but transplanted from the streets of New Jersey and drowned in the Brooklyn depths of Russian roulette. Gandolfin’s role is a fitting memento for a lost time and a lost man.
Interestingly, The Drop shares some sizable slices of similarity with another recent release: A Most Wanted Man. The overlap exists through the English connection (Tom Hardy/John le Carré), the last performance of a tragically, prematurely deceased actor (James Gandolfini/Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the return of Chechnya as the source of all evil. Hollywood has backed off Chechnya since its popularity post-Cold War (Clancy’s Sum of All fears, a prime example, but The Chechen from The Dark Knight is a glaringly obvious more recent addition). Two films in the space of a month with a Chechen menace signals a surge that could become a trend, as we look east for our existentialist threat.
Hollywood always needs a next nemesis…