Tom Hardy Gets "The Drop" On Dark Horse Oscar Buzz

Michael Roskam’s latest is the kind of work that renews faith in film as a performing art, reminding us that we’re largely beholden to the actors placed in front of us. They’re the storytelling spigots, transmitting thousands of hours of behind-the-scenes work to our eyes and ears. Whether a film sputters or flows is on the shoulders of many, but actors are the face of a motion picture. It’s the cast that stands out in the open, with nowhere to hide – and who better to face down audiences than Tom Hardy (“The Dark Knight Rises”) and the late James Gandolfini (HBO’s “The Sopranos”)?

“The Drop” will forever be known as Galdolfini’s final screen performance, as it should, but it’s also Hardy’s best performance to date, cementing his place as an actor’s actor – up for anything, giving everything. Even when his performances are quiet – like this one – they’re loud, a quality that grates on some but it’s never less than fascinating to watch him work. He makes so many tiny decisions each second he’s on screen, growing each one throughout the course of a film. The most compelling shot in the “The Drop” is an extended close-up of the actor’s face, and that’s not an insult – through it he says everything without saying anything.

Dennis Lehane’s screenplay – based on his book, “Animal Rescue” – is nothing to sneeze at either, furtively laying groundwork for a refreshingly understated crime drama. He gets the story its boiling point and then backs off, letting the cast take the picture to the finish line. Most of the exposition is out of the way immediately – as relayed in an opening voiceover by Hardy – allowing the pic’s three leads (including Noomi Rapace, “Prometheus”) to tell the story free of clunky dialogue and overly convenient plot points. The screenplay also lends itself to one of the finest animal performances – by a group of puppies, no less – in recent memory.

Hardy leads as Bob Saginowski, a Brooklyn-bred bartender whose bar is frequently used to launder money. Late one night, he and his boss (and cousin), Marv (Gandolfini), are accosted at gunpoint, the bar’s off-the-books safe emptied by someone clearly with inside information. The robbery “victims” (read: gangsters) blame Bob and his cousin, beginning an intimidation game that may or may not bleed into the duo’s personal lives. The intersection of Bob’s bar and home life is an appropriately murky one, allowing Hardy to maintain an air of mystery throughout.

At home, Bob has begun to care for an injured pitbull puppy he found in the trash can of an unknowing neighbor, Nadia (Rapace). Hardy’s loosey-goosey Brooklyn cadence and cool but deliberate body language make the character an ideal companion for both the dog and Nadia, all injured animals in their own right (hence the name of the source material). But Bob’s past remains shrouded, his piercing blue eyes always staring straight ahead, paying no mind to what’s behind him.

Marv is similarly hard to figure, all at once burly and cuddly – a dichotomy Gandolfini always did so well – living with his sister, Dottie (Ann Dowd), but walling off everyone else, Bob included. Marv is large and in charge except when the rubber actually meets the road, leaving Bob to always, inexplicably rise to the occasion. When the pair receives a threat in the form of a severed arm, the latter coolly wraps it in cellophane like a freshly made hoagie, Marv looking on in horror at his cousin’s untapped skill set.

Despite Gandolfini’s solid curtain call performance, “The Drop” belongs wholly to Hardy. His character’s budding friendship with Nadia is the meat of the narrative while his conflict with the alleged rightful owner of his dog (Matthias Schoenaerts, “Rust And Bone”) is its potatoes, allowing the actor to play conflicting emotions all at once like a detuned piano. Even when the story slows, it’s a pleasure to watch him work, both alone and with his fellow cast members, canine and otherwise. Hardy’s approach isn’t subtle, but everything around him is, making for an ideal creative partnership.

Lehane’s screenplay is free of the extraneous nuts and bolts that so often come with crime dramas, turning simple moments like a well-placed umbrella into something genuinely menacing. And Roskam’s direction is equally hands-off, faltering only in the form of a couple baffling first-person shots and unnecessary focal shifts. The result is a superbly understated and impeccably acted film that dually acts as a eulogy for one great actor’s career and a mission statement for another’s. What we’ve lost in James Gandolfini we’ve gained in Tom Hardy, set to carry the torch for a new generation of acting giants.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: September 12, 2014
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Michael Roskam
Screenwriter: Dennis Lehane
Starring: Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, James Gandolfini, Matthias Schoenaerts, John Ortiz, Ann Dowd, James Frecheville
MPAA Rating: R (for some strong violence and pervasive language)