For his new foray into feature-length screenwriting, novelist Dennis Lehane opted for a rare change of scenery. While most of the author’s stories are set in Dorchester, the Boston neighborhood where he was born and raised, The Drop relocates his particular brand of weary, flavorful crime fiction to the most crowded of the five boroughs, Brooklyn. Not that the swap in zip codes amounts to much of a detour: The accents, street names, and team jerseys may have changed, but we’re still squarely in Lehaneville, a place where history hangs like a storm cloud, violence corrupts bloodlines, and the church and the local tavern fight for controlling stock of a man’s soul. Cultural authenticity seeps into the cracks of this low-key lowlife drama, whose best attribute is the pungent sense of place it possesses.
The other big draw of The Drop is its cast, a fine ensemble that includes both the mercurial English movie star Tom Hardy and the late James Gandolfini, in his final big-screen appearance. Hardy plays Bob, a soft-spoken neighborhood fixture who serves drinks at a local “drop bar,” called so because it serves as a dirty-money repository for the borough’s seediest customers. Bob’s older cousin, the bitter Marv (Gandolfini), technically owns the joint, but he lost control of it years earlier, when Chechen mobsters put the squeeze on him. The Drop’s inciting incident, quite similar to the one in Killing Them Softly, occurs when a couple of masked thugs rob the bar—and the Chechens, who aren’t in the business of hemorrhaging cash, express suspicion that it may have been an inside job.
There isn’t much more to the plot, which keeps its focus narrow. Maybe too narrow, in fact: Lehane adapted The Drop from one of his own short stories, and it has the feel of a modest yarn stretched uncomfortably to feature length. Coasting in first gear for most of its run time, the film spends long stretches just hanging with Hardy’s almost-comically laid-back protagonist. See Bob dodge the questions of a persistent detective (John Ortiz). See Bob gently woo a local beauty (Noomi Rapace). See Bob adopt and dote on an adorable puppy he finds in a trashcan. There are also a few flashes of grisly violence, staged with a lack of fuss by Bullhead director Michaël R. Roskam, making his English-language debut. Roskam brought along the star of his breakthrough, the excellent Matthias Schoenaerts, who’s a bit like the Belgian Tom Hardy. Rocking a flawless American accent, the actor brings a doltish menace to the role of a hoodlum whose fearsome reputation precedes him.
Spread across a few vivid pages, this tale of old resentments and new rivalries probably reads like gangbusters. On screen, it seems minor and padded out. There is, however, a punctuation at the end of Lehane’s pokey narrative amble—a reveal that makes its less eventful passages feel like skilled misdirection. Furthermore, Hardy’s unflappable calm makes sense in retrospect, the film building to a fairly effective reversal of expectations. Were The Drop to have truly embraced the harsh implication of its climax, it might have gained a measure of lasting power. Instead, in what feels like either a sop to test audiences or a failure of nerve on the part of the filmmakers, a ruinously rosy final scene is tacked on. Every short story needs to stick the landing—and Lehane majorly flubs his, in a way that severely compromises the impact of his drama. Some sharp environmental detail and a few fine performances just aren’t compensation enough.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, the plot details we can’t reveal in our review, visit The Drop’s Spoiler Space.