The Drop opens with a voiceover explaining the concept of "drop bars," mob-controlled establishments that regularly serve as collection points for the take that day. Drop bars, the voiceover explains, are chosen at random that day. Bob (Tom Hardy) tends bar at one of these places, working with his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), who used to own the joint until he was muscled out by the Chechen gangsters who currently run it. Then one night, the bar is robbed.
The movie splits its attention between the fallout of the robbery and another story thread. While walking home one night, Bob finds an abused pit bull in a garbage can. At the prodding of the kindly Nadia (Noomi Rapace), who helps him tend to the dog's injuries, he adopts the puppy. But it turns out that Eddie, the dog's real owner isn't too happy about Bob taking his dog. He leans on the bartender, harassing him at every turn, and demanding that he be paid for the dog.
The Drop is kind of strange in that it is essentially a romantic movie. It just so happens to set in the seedy world of Brooklyn gangsters. There is plenty of crime flavor to be had, but the core story is really about a boy who meets a girl and bonds with her through their mutual affection for a dog. That sounds like the kind of plot that would involve Katherine Heigl. But the film takes another tack. The film builds a compelling world around this stock story, one filled with dangerous characters and situations that call for a life-or-death choice.
The film lives on understated tension. Every scene makes it clear that these characters have stuff in their pasts that might make them dangerous. They have histories that connect them to peril, or push them to make dumb choices. But the violence has become so internalized that no one is surprised by it any longer. The film filters the story's grim business through a character that seems to have seen it all already; someone who doesn't flinch when confronted with a dismembered arm. So when something does rattle the main character, it feels all the more dangerous.
It's an interesting conceit, but it isn't entirely successful. The movie ends up spinning out into too many directions as it tries to establish as much danger as possible. Not every diversion pays off, drawing attention away from the main thread. The film's best scenes mainly involve Bob, Nadia, and Eddie. Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, and Belgian actor Mathias Schoenarts work in concert beautifully, their combined performances building a symphony of unstated regret. In one of his final performances, James Gandolfini is a real pleasure to watch, but the character feels ancillary at best.
The Drop ends on a bit of a strange note. It delivers a resolution that doesn't feel entirely earned, the film having spent so much time building a world where such an ending isn't supposed to be possible. Had the film given more focus to this main thread, it might have worked out a little better. Still, this film provides plenty of appealing flavor. Even its quietest moments are suffused with tension, the movie never letting us forget that these people exist in a world where cruelty seems to be rewarded. The next cruel turn is probably just around the corner.