You think you’ve seen it all and then something like “The Drop” hits you.
It begins in familiar territory, the mean streets of Brooklyn — more like they were in yesteryear before gentrification hit the borough but nevertheless an old neighborhood filled with gangs, churches, small shops and a tavern where everyone hangs out.
Gradually though you realize you’re going to have to pay attention, to watch these characters closely. For not everything is as it seems. Even more startling, the focus is less on a crime but rather a battered puppy and a quiet, lonely, seemingly introverted man. He’s a bartender who, as they say, plays with his cards close to his vest.
He is one of the most original characters in crime fiction in a long while, and “The Drop” is one of the most original crime movies in even longer. See this movie!
“The Drop” comes with an interesting pedigree. The headline, of course, is that this is the late James Gandolfini’s final screen performances. His passing was a great tragedy for movie fans everywhere, but this is the way to go out with a first-rate performance in a subtlety layered character you don’t fully know until the final moments.
It is also a smart American feature debut by the well-regarded Belgian director of “Bulllhead,” Michaël R. Roskam. And a first screenplay by Dennis Lehane, whose novels have paved the way for such movie thrillers as “Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone” and “Shutter Island.” This one is based on his short story “Animal Rescue.”
Tom Hardy is actually the central figure playing Bob, an enigmatic man, who tends bar and keeps his head down at a tavern run by (and named for) his cousin Marv (Gandolfini). Marv once owned the joint but it got taken over by Chechen mobsters who keep him on as its figurehead.
Marv’s is a watering hole that on certain nights becomes a temporary bank for the gang’s illicit gains. Envelopes full of bills get surreptitiously slipped under tables or into slots that find their way into a time-release safe from which it gets collected in the early morning.
Bob looks the other way as this happens. Once, he admits later in the story, he ran with a “crew,” but now wants no part of “those people.” He fills drink orders, minds his own business, gets close to no one and goes to an old parish church each morning. But he never takes Communion.
A bit of excitement happens one night when two guys in masks, apparently unaware this is a mob bar, stick up the joint. Police comes around with one, Detective Torres (John Ortiz), recognizing Bob from church.
Then Bob’s life changes. Of all things, he rescues an abused and abandoned pit bull puppy. He finds it in a trash can in a neighbor’s front yard. The neighbor, Nadia (Noomi Rapace), reluctantly agrees to help Bob care for the puppy.
This sparks the unwanted attention of local tough guy Eric Deeds (“Rust and Bone’s” Matthias Schoenaerts) who claims both the puppy and Nadia belong to him. He more or less stalks him. Bob’s reaction interests you — he appears concerned but in other respects unphased.
Is he used to such things in this neighborhood? Is he keeping his cool? Or does he maybe have things under control all along?
The puppy changes everything for Bob. He now has some living being a part of his life and perhaps Nadia may become a second attachment. He is forced out of his shell.
Then again Marv, since the robbery that greatly annoyed his employers, begins acting stranger and stranger. Then too Lehane has a few surprises up his sleeve, a few expository things he is saving for later as all good writers do.
“The Drop” has a most unexpected yet satisfying third act. Characters, schemes and back stories converge with a bang. I heard audiences members laugh heartily at the surprise developments; they were caught that much off-guard.
Roskam asks his “Bullhead” cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis to light the gritty streets, bar and car interiors with noir darkness and to keep his camera close to the actors. So close that one often struggles to see whose house a character just entered — is it Bob’s or Nadia? They both look somewhat alike.
The color palette is similarly dark with grays, blues and blacks dominating even in the lit tavern. A sense of foreboding hovers over the characters. You know someone is doomed and maybe more than one. Who’s going to do something stupid? Who’s going to sneak up when no one is looking?
Thus, the film maintains its suspenseful grip on a viewer even when the puppy is getting walked or trained. And so it remains until a fateful night at Marv’s. It’s Super Bowl Sunday and Marv’s will once again be the “money drop.”
Opens: September 12, 2014 (Fox Searchlight)
Production companies: Fox Searchlight presents a Chernin Entertainment production
Cast: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini, Matthias Schoenaerts, John Ortiz, Ann Dowd, Michael Aronov
Director: Michaël R. Roskam
Screenwriter: Dennis Lehane
Based on the short story by: Dennis Lehane
Producers: Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping
Executive producers: Mike Larocca, M. Blair Breard, Dennis Lehane
Director of photography: Nicolas Karakatsanis
Production designer: Thérèse DePrez
Music: Marco Beltrami
Costume designer: David Robinson
Editor: Christopher Tellefsen
R rating, 107 minutes