‘The Drop’ is a case study in empathy

By Nathan Frontiero

(Photo Fox Searchlight)
(Photo Fox Searchlight)

Make no mistake – “The Drop” is not a crime thriller. The titular drop, which refers to a bar picked for discretely depositing mob money each night, is just suspenseful padding for the more intimate focus beneath it. A title card in the end credits notes the film is based on a Dennis Lehane short story titled “Animal Rescue,” and indeed the film exudes a smaller, atmospheric feel. To accomplish this, Dennis Lehane adapted the script himself and Michaël R. Roskam’s direction hews to the tighter narrative scope familiar to the short story form.

The ever-transformative Tom Hardy holds the film together like an iron vise. Here he disappears behind Bob Saginowski, a Brooklyn bartender at Cousin Marv’s, one of the many drop bars controlled by Chechen mobsters. Hardy’s narration introduces the neighborhood’s rule and the exposition isn’t grating. Roskam puts the brunt of the film on his star’s shoulders, and boy, can Hardy lift. You’ll recognize the actor instantly. Beyond his character’s wardrobe, there isn’t much in the way of changing Hardy’s typical rugged look. The magic is in his dialect and physicality.

Bob is a lonely, soft-spoken man and Hardy nails his every stiff, restrained nuance. It’s practically enough to only watch him. Hardy is mesmerizing. I found myself hinging on his every gently rasping word, waiting for him in every scene. He speaks with an impeccable Brooklyn accent and makes each line resonate like a riddle gradually unspooling. Bob is rather enigmatic and the film’s refusal to spell him out offers more satisfying suspense than the mob subplot.

In the overall scheme, Bob’s arc carries far more heft, which is great since beneath the film’s laboriously suspenseful plotting is an aching empathetic core. Roskam pushes us to feel for Bob, to identify and align with him, and then pulls up the mirror to show us what we have become. The effect is jarringly divisive. I left the theater unsure if I wanted to cry out of deep sadness or recoil in utter horror.

This emotional duality resonates in a way that the larger plot simply fails to. Luckily, Roskam and Lehane understand how to tip the balance appropriately. They focus the story on its most arresting elements. Particular attention is paid to the train of events that spin out after Bob finds a pit bull puppy abandoned in a trashcan. We see Hardy’s burly, quiet man cradle the injured dog and it’s heartbreaking.

Nicolas Karakatsanis’ cinematography hibernates within the chilling intimacy of these scenes. He expertly traps the palette in the dingy urban frost of the winter weeks at the tail end of the holidays. I was reminded of how stunningly quiet the season is. The temporal backdrop is as repressed as the film’s protagonist.

Roskam makes only subtly pointed gestures to underline critical details. At one point, Bob stands in a doorway in the back of the bar, shrouded entirely in red. The impression is dark and it’s probably the most direct window we get into deciphering his character until the denouement. The director knows to restrain himself and simply allow his lead to bring the audience into the icy shadows.

Amid the unnecessarily elusive events, some pieces and players fall to underplayed beats. The most disappointing of these is cousin Marv himself, the bar owner played with gruff commitment by the late James Gandolfini. Marv is a thinly sketched character, brusque and stuck, and constantly complaining about the stature he once had in the neighborhood, a power that time and change have stripped from him. It’s hard to watch Gandolfini relegated to such a beat part. You’ll want to squint your eyes and look away as Marv himself does in one of his final scenes. Gandolfini’s character, like the crime plot that involves him, ends up being almost entirely inconsequential.

“The Drop” tries and mostly fails to build a bigger situation into a smaller scale. Credit falls inextricably to Tom Hardy, who again delivers a devastatingly immersive performance and thus holds the film afloat. When Bob delivers his bookending narration and this story disappears like winter water under the Brooklyn Bridge, “The Drop” reaches somewhere inside your heart and hurts in the right way.


Nathan Frontiero can be reached at [email protected].