Tells a Low-Down Tale
By Michael S. Goldberger
Seething is the word that comes to mind as writer Dennis Lehane’s “The Drop,” about very bad doings in the underbelly of contemporary Brooklyn, unfolds. It seethes with ill will. But what makes it even more disquieting is that, lounging at Cousin Marv’s neighborhood bar, you mightn’t know at first blush what illicit things happen here. You wonder, perhaps having an innocent pint or two, how often you’ve unwittingly sat amongst those involved in the most perfidious of pursuits. Cousin Marv’s, you see, run by James Gandolfini’s Marv, is a drop joint.
That is, those criminal powers that be, in this specific case the Chechen Mafia, use Marv’s as a way station where they temporarily park each night’s ill-gotten gains. Some probably know it, but, like Tom Hardy’s Bob Saginowski, the tight-lipped but very observant bartender who is actually Marv’s cousin, keep their mouths shut. Stoical, resolved in his fate among the shadows of misbegotten souls he serves, he utters no aspirations other than to maintain the status quo: “I just tend bar.” The tavern’s namesake, on the other hand, is a mass of bitter disappointment.
From snippets of acerbic repartee between Marv and his blood-linked barkeep, we gather that the tavern owner might have resisted the cancerous encroachment of the villainous thugs that now ostensibly own his establishment. However, shortsighted, prone to bad judgment and a glutton for excesses that inevitably compromise a smalltime guy, he has sold himself to the Devil, and it appears there is no Daniel Webster to reclaim him, except for Bob… maybe.
If we know anything from director Michael R. Roskam’s slyly rolled out plot tidbits and character exposition, it’s that Bob is a strangely loyal sort, even in the face of his cousin’s thoughtless castigations. This assumption will be tested and further information will be forthcoming, all splendidly mixed in with odd circumstance and seemingly unconnected subplots. Oh, and there’s one heckuva big surprise in store…extra astonishing because, to paraphrase a detective investigating a holdup at Cousin Marv’s, “You don’t see it coming.”
Inasmuch as he’s the narrator, or simply because he seems a lonely sort destined to spend his days among the seedy, unfortunate and baseborn, we’re happy when a slight glimmer of purpose other than mere subsistence enters Bob’s life. It comes in the form of a yelping pit bull puppy he finds discarded in a garbage can in the front yard of an equally lonely sort along his route home. Nadia, a waitress portrayed by Noomi Rapace, standoffish for good reason, softens just long enough to help Bob shop for the items he’ll need to be a full-fledged dog owner.
Whether Bob and Nadia know it or not, romance attempts to gift the sordid air with its hopeful fragrance. Shades of Adrian and Rocky (“Rocky”-1976), although a full degree more dire, they mistrustfully maneuver and size each other up, daring not wish aloud for what might make their bleak existence more bearable. It’s nicely executed and, in a film ripe with subtle metaphor, suggests a supposition or two. Like the sapling that sprouted through the concrete in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945), perchance love, too, might defy its obstacles and detractors.
Bob wants to name the pooch either Rocky or Mike, but prefers the latter. Nadia says Mike is no name for a dog. Such lighthearted banter in the face of constant fear amounts to whistling past the graveyard. Surely something will come along and ruin the simple joy of discussing the frivolous and casual. Thus, enters stage left crazy and threatening Eric Deeds, menacingly played by Matthias Schoenaerts. He says it’s his dog and wants $10,000 for him. Huh? Really?
To stir the pot a bit more, local legend has it that Deeds was responsible ten years ago for the still unsolved killing of neighborhood regular Richie Whelan. Mr. Roskam tosses out a few similarly uncertain accusations and dark secrets, cunningly weaving his crime drama with smartly released tangential clues that both startle and make us wonder where all this bad behavior is heading. Further convoluting the ambiguity between good and evil, resident detective Torres (John Ortiz) has some thought provoking observations about Bob’s church attendance.
Watching this moody meditation, not quite retro film noir, but close in that its desperate characters aspire to little more than survival and a farfetched dream or two, I remembered a conversation I once had with a veteran stockbroker at a party. I asked how big he thought the underground economy was. He answered without hesitation, “As big as the aboveground economy.” The shock and alarm of worlds in our very midst that dismiss the rules of civilization we know is frighteningly entertaining, especially when their surprises get “The Drop” on you.
“The Drop,” rated R, is a Fox Searchlight Pictures release directed by Michael R. Roskam and stars Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace and James Gandolfini. Running time: 106 minutes