TIFF Review: 'The Drop'

The Drop
(USA, 107 min.)
Dir. Michaël R. Roskam, Writ. Dennis Lehane
Starring: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini, Matthias Schoenaerts
Programme: World Premiere
Photo courtesy of TIFF.
Move over, Uggie, you’re no longer top dog of movieland! The Drop introduces a new four-legged star to moviegoers this year at the Toronto International Film Festival. His name is Rocco and he’s the little doggie that could.

Rocco, a pit bull puppy, escapes the trashcan when big-hearted Brooklyn bartender Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) saves him from the bin in The Drop. Bob works in a dive full of seedy characters, but The Drop shows that he’s one of the good guys when he takes the battered little pooch under his wing and nurses it back to help with the aid of Nadia (a strong Noomi Rapace), in whose garbage can he finds the discarded dog. It isn’t Nadia’s dog, of course, but the dog’s allegedly true owner is another kettle of fish whom screenwriter Dennis Lehane introduces later in The Drop’s slow simmer.

Director Michaël R. Roskam (Bullhead) presents a grey-toned Brooklyn to match the edge and coolness of these characters who survive by their own means in a very tough corner of working class society. Bob’s bar bears the name of Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini, terrific in his final screen performance) and it acts as one of several “drop bars” for the local underworld. (A drop bar serves as the place where gangsters drop their dough.) It’s a Grand Hotel kind of affair where people come and people go, but only Bob really stays even though he asserts to Nadia more than once that he’s not part of that crowd. He claims he is just a bartender.

There’s clearly more to Bob than The Drop lets on. Hardy, big and burly, looks as if he should be playing Gandolfini’s muscleman, but when two young thugs give Cousin Marv the drop and run off with five grand in cash, Bob barely moves a muscle. Give him a cute little puppy, though, and his attention is all yours.

Hardy gives one of his stronger performances as Bob, playing the character as troubled and brooding, but also sensitive and a little bit skittish. (First time parent syndrome goes into effect when Bob welcomes Rocco into the family.) His grasp of the Brooklyn accent is assured and it helps make a physically intimidating character seem as soft as the puppy under his care. A late-act reveal makes Hardy’s performance a disappearing act as The Drop shifts perceptions of good and evil and of right and wrong.

This dark, character-drive crime drama (and yes, Rocco is very much a character of the film) exists in a grey area of moral ambiguity and principled haziness. The storylines converge with moralities weighted on either side as Bob and Marv must decide to face the Chechen gangsters who own their bar or tip off the well-meaning, churching-going cop (John Ortiz) eager to help the case. Bob, meanwhile, has the fates of both Rocco and Nadia in his hands when Eric (Rust & Bone’s Matthias Schoenaerts), an eerie thug with a reputation, stakes a claim for both.

A few too many subplots and storylines add little, a few turns seem too obvious, and a few supporting players border upon caricature (cough, cough, Chechen mobsters), but they’re more than capably overcome by unexpected twists and strong performances. There is no easy outcome in The Drop—save for violence that only begs more violence—and the screenplay by Lehane creates an alluringly dangerous world where nobody is really safe or trustworthy.

There is Rocco, though, and this spirited pit bull makes The Drop something else. He’s too cute for words, especially looking as tough and battered as he does, and the bond between pet and master is unlike any other in the film. Rocco is part comic relief and part symbol as The Drop fashions a rescue mission in which both Rocco and Bob are in need of salvation. A dog is man’s best friend, but whether an adorable dog should be the highlight of a gritty crime drama is another riddle.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

The Drop screens:
-Saturday, Sept. 6 at 11:45 am at the Princess of Wales
-Saturday, Sept. 13 at 3:00 pm at the Princess of Wales

Please visit www.tiff.net for more information on this year’s Festival.