Shy, good-natured and softly spoken, Bob (Tom Hardy) is the kinda guy we all know but never see; the kinda guy you see around the neighbourhood, at church, at the store, on the street. Friendly but not too friendly, keeps himself to himself. Not too chatty, not too overburdened with brains. The kinda guy who blends into the background, who sees everything, who keeps his mouth shut.

Bob tends bar for his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) at his neighbourhood pub in Brooklyn, the Corner. A former not-so-wiseguy fallen on hard times, Cousin Marv used to be a big shot until the Chechen Mafia muscled in on his turf. Now he owns the bar in name only, the Chechen’s using it as a front, a ‘drop’ for their illegal gambling empire, Bob and Marv stashing hot, undeclared cash from bookies on its way further up the chain to the bosses.

When a couple of young punks stick up the bar and make off with $5000 in legit takings, gangster Chovka (Michael Aronov) makes it clear to Cousin Marv that it’s his responsibility to make good on the loss and a suspicious cop, Detective Torres (John Ortiz), who knows Bob from morning Mass, starts sniffing around, pressuring Bob for information. But Bob has problems of his own.

Having saved a battered pitbull puppy, abandoned in a garbage can, and nursed it back to health with the aid of waitress Nadia (Noomi Rapace), Bob finds himself on the wrong side of local psycho Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), the puppy’s former owner and Nadia’s former boyfriend. With Chovka insisting the bar acts as the drop for the biggest gambling night of the year, Super Bowl Sunday, Bob’s quiet, well-ordered life could be about to get very messy…

“It is sometimes the height of wisdom to feign stupidity.” It’s been over two thousand years since Cato the Elder said it but it’s become no less true; it often pays to play dumb. Adapted from his own short story Animal Rescue by first-time screenwriter Dennis Lehane, in Bullhead director Michael R. Roskam’s claustrophobic, slow-burning English language debut, no one, least of all Hardy’s slow-reading Bob, is quite what they seem. In fact, possibly the only character in the film that doesn’t hide a dark secret, nurse a violent grievance or have a hidden agenda is the lovable puppy Rocco whom Bob adopts. And make no mistake, it’s Bob and Rocco’s romance, not Bob and Nadia’s, that’s the warm, beating heart of this wintry, downbeat film. In Lehane and Roskam’s insular, blue collar Brooklyn, no one is innocent, violence is sudden and death lurks just around the corner. To say much more runs the risk of spoiling The Drop’s deceptive pleasures but as with the likes of Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone or Mystic River this is a crime thriller where the crime itself is incidental to the characters and the impact and legacies their decisions have on their lives. The Drop is a film about living with the consequences of your actions, of living with your sins.

In his final screen role, Gandolfini is wonderful as Cousin Marv, a doomed, bottom-rung Tony Soprano, a guy who coulda been a contender but lost his nerve and with it his empire, a frustrated wannabe forced to beg from the table that used to be his, he cuts a tragic figure but his is an ordinary tragedy not an operatic one. Rapace is solid in the somewhat thankless role of the scarred, damaged Nadia, a character practically interchangeable with the quiet, damaged character she played last year in Danish director Niels Arden Oplev’s Dead Man Down. As the volatile, unstable Deeds, the magnetic Schoenaerts steals every scene he’s in, an almost jovially menacing presence, his intense physicality and coiled violence easily convincing the audience of the threat he poses to Hardy’s Bob.

It’s Hardy however who dominates the film, grounding it with his lumbering shuffle and taciturn reticence, hoodwinking the audience into believing he’s doing nothing, the surface placid, his Bob is reminiscent of Stallone’s Rocky (the washed-up loser from the first film, not the Cold Warrior Superman of later outings), that big dumb lug everyone knows and everyone likes but no one takes seriously. But all the time, he’s watching, he’s listening, he’s figuring the angles. And there lies both Bob’s strength and danger; as Torres says “They never see you coming; do they Bob?”

Tense, downbeat and bleakly hopeful, like it’s central character, The Drop is a film you don’t see coming.

DVD Review: The Drop
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