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The Drop features a great Tom Hardy performance and a twisty plot

Tom Hardy (left) and James Gandolfini play bar employees who get in over their heads in The Drop.
Tom Hardy (left) and James Gandolfini play bar employees who get in over their heads in The Drop.
Fox Searchlight
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The Drop, out in theaters tomorrow, is being sold as a crime thriller, a dark drama about men in desperate situations doing terrible things. And to be sure, there's plenty of that in the film's genetic code.

But much more of The Drop is a character study of Bob (Tom Hardy), a Brooklyn bartender who finds himself on the periphery of a series of horrible events, drawn ever closer to the center. The fact that the film is a character study is what makes it so unexpectedly entertaining and fun to watch, and it builds up a nice sense of dread as it heads to an unexpected editing.

But should you go see it? Here's our best guess.

Why you should watch it

The primary reason to see The Drop is Hardy, who is quietly carving out an impressive career for himself. Hardy has the looks of a leading man, but the soul of a character actor who takes smaller, more interesting parts just because they're of interest to him. Hardy can bounce from Bane in The Dark Knight Rises to smaller films like this or Locke, and he feels equally at home in both of them.

Here, his Bob is a seemingly quiet, gentle soul, who sticks behind the bar at his cousin Marv's place, which is technically owned by the mob. (Marv is played by James Gandolfini, in his final screen role.) He finds a young pit bull in a trash can early in the film, and he strikes up a friendship with the woman (Noomi Rapace) whose trash can he found it in. He mostly tries to stay out of the way of the various criminal elements who go in and out of the place some nights, until he finds himself involved in a hold-up that leaves the bar out $5,000 to the mob. Bob and Marv need either find the robbers or the $5,000 — or both.

Much of the tension in the film and Hardy's performance comes from the fact that we know what genre of movie he's stumbled into. Is Bob going to be able to navigate the complicated twists and turns of the plot? Is he going to be able to defend himself, his dog, and the woman he's steadily falling in love with? And will he figure out how all of these many plot threads and storylines knit together, before a police detective, played by John Ortiz, does?

Directed by Belgian Michaël R. Roskam (whose previous film was the much acclaimed Bullhead), The Drop has a healthy sense of place. Marv's feels like a real bar that could exist on just about any street corner in a down-and-out neighborhood of just about any city. Props and set dressing are used perfectly to immediately place Bob or Marv in their homes, or to identify a struggling city church. And he's also got a great sense of the city in winter, just after Christmas, when the year seems especially grey and unwelcoming.

Roskam also works well with screenwriter Dennis Lehane (who adapts from his own short story) to steadily build tension and dread. Roskam holds shots of Bob just a little longer than you'd expect, as if waiting for the character to finally crack, and he and Hardy almost seem to be engaged in a game of chicken at times, both of them waiting for Bob to break and reveal how he's going to handle this situation. That dread serves well to make the final sequences of the film — when almost all of its characters converge on Marv's — feel as if absolutely anything could happen.

That's a good place for a twisty thriller to be in, but it also turns out to be a good place for a character study to be in. The audience keeps learning new things about Bob, Marv, and all the other characters with every new scene, which gives both sides of the film's identity a surprising depth by the time the film's final scenes make the puzzle snap into place.

Why you shouldn't watch

Roskam, Lehane, and Hardy might be good at keeping the full picture from the audience in ways that ultimately make sense, but this also means that there are scenes where lots of things are happening around Bob, but he's not really doing much of anything at the film's center. That quiet passivity works for a while, but there are scenes toward the end that almost seem to be kicking the can further down the road, instead of letting things explode too early.

Similarly, Rapace's character doesn't always seem to hang together as anything other than a love interest for Bob. There are hints here and there that she's got her own struggles and issues, but she ultimately turns into a bargaining chip, which is too bad for an actress that the American film industry has yet to really figure out how to use.

In that respect, Lehane's script might be almost too busy. There are lots of great actors playing intriguing characters running around in this movie, but, say, Ann Dowd as Marv's sister gets no room to register. The Drop's shagginess is mostly admirable, and it adds to the sense that this story is taking place in a real neighborhood. But there are times when it seems to be adding complications just to keep the film's final twists from being revealed too soon.

Finally, Gandolfini is brilliant here — he always is — but he's less of a presence than one might hope for in his final role. He's very much a supporting player here, and while that's nothing The Drop can control, it's still at least a little sad.

The final verdict

So should you go? Yeah, particularly if you like this genre. It's not a great time for new movies, and The Drop has more than enough scenes and moments that make it worth watching, to say nothing of Hardy's sterling performance.

Or, if nothing else, wait to watch it on cable on some rainy Saturday. This is the perfect movie to go into with no expectations and find yourself unexpectedly riveted by.

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