Transplanted from the Dorchester setting of Dennis Lehane’s short story “Animal Rescue,” The Drop plays out on the fringes of New York City, in the heart of old-school, pre-cool Brooklyn, the domain of dive bars, unkempt backyards, and single-family houses. Despite an introductory shot which sets the underworld-focused tone, with the inverted underside of the Manhattan Bridge reflected in the murky surface of a puddle, the film emphasizes the everyday nature of its location, in which keeping mum about illegal neighborhood business is only one of many tribal codes governing this tight-knit, family-oriented milieu. None of this is a problem for simple bartender Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy), who’s not one to question the way things are, living sparsely in a house passed down from his deceased parents, old plastic coating still clinging to the vintage furniture.
While some parts of this world have inevitably changed, namely the intrusion of brutally efficient Chechen immigrants in the organized crime circuit and the gradual conversion of the neighborhood cathedral into condos, the past lives on in the profusion of hand-me-down objects and old-fashioned characters. The titular “drop” is itself a quaintly traditional bit of business, in which mob-controlled bars are selected on a rotational basis to collect an entire borough’s worth of dirty money, transferred briefly into a secure lockbox, with the gangsters arriving at the end of the night to pick up the haul. In a different movie this might feel like the silly stuff of expansive criminal conspiracies, but in keeping with its overall homespun feel, The Drop keeps things intimate, cataloguing a steady accretion of small cash envelopes.
Much of the film takes place in one of these drop bars, a cozy watering hole run by Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), whose name on the front adds to the overall family feel. Marv himself isn’t particularly avuncular; once something of a local heavy, he now labors in grumpy servitude under the Chechens, who took control of his bar after a short struggle eight years earlier. Marv’s dissatisfaction progresses to something more acute when the bar is suspiciously robbed on one of its nights serving as the drop, losing five thousand dollars of mob money which Marv and his trusty bartender are expected to recover themselves.
This is one of many challenges for the quiet, impassive Bob, who’s also dealing with the adoption of an abused puppy, an equally damaged love interest (Noomi Rapace), and the aggressive advances of a local thug with ties to both (Matthias Schoenaerts). These elements are all incorporated within the pulpy narrative, which unfolds with satisfying precision, anchored by a well-constructed script from veteran novelist Lehane, stylish direction from Belgian import Michaël Roskam, and strong performances all around. A standard gangster story on its surface, The Drop patiently develops some interesting ideas as it progresses, minimizing the focus on money and playing up the concept of a gangster demimonde fueled primarily by insecurity, with pointless squabbles over reputation and petty personal grudges keeping the cycle of violence flowing.
All this leads up to a suitably nasty conclusion, which both expands and explains the grim pall of Catholic guilt that’s been looming throughout. But the film unfortunately gets greedy with an oddly optimistic capper, making room for sunshine and bright flowers in a movie that’s been identified almost exclusively by frost and darkness. It’s a nice last moment for some hard-luck characters, but it’s also a complete violation of the preceding final twist, which swaps out earlier notions of masculine insecurity for a chilling final statement on the banality of evil. By offering last-minute salvation to a character who seems to have accepted his own cursed status, the film muddies its previous statements regarding the danger of unthinkingly hanging on to totems of the past—be it plastic coated furniture, fading tough-guy status, or tribal notions of heroic aggression—and how such blind adherence perpetuates toxic systems of violence. Robbed of this idea, The Drop becomes something far more ordinary, another story of hard men doing terrible things to one another for very little reason.