The easiest knock against The Drop is that it operates in an overexposed milieu: current urban American crime. It’s hard to pump something new into this world, but the film succeeds because of its rich attention to detail and a Dennis Lehane script with a surplus of tasty dialogue. Lehane, the author of Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, adapted the screenplay from his short story “Animal Welfare.” Two initially unrelated incidents make the plot go: the rescue of a wounded dog and the closing-time robbery of a Brooklyn tavern called Cousin Marv’s. The bar’s mild-mannered, mind-my-own-business bartender, Bob Saginowsi (Tom Hardy, late of Locke), is walking home one night when he hears the pathetic mewling of an abandoned pit bull. The abused dog is on the property of Nadia (Noomi Rapace), and these two strangers strike up a friendship around the dog; it is just possible they might be interested in each other. The robbery, meanwhile, puts hapless Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) in a tight spot; he’s already lost ownership of the bar to Chechen gangsters, who would really like their stolen money back. They play rough.
We surmise early on that not all is as it seems, and the storyline has some effective revelations along the way. But the painting of a culture is the real draw here; not only are Lehane’s underworld denizens unable to escape, it doesn’t even occur to them to imagine escaping. (The one exception is Marv’s sister, played by Compliance star Ann Dowd, who touchingly nurtures some vague idea of seeing Europe someday.) Bullhead director Michael R. Roskam has his actors sunk into this defeated world: Rapace (of the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movies) gives her best English-language performance yet; and Hardy’s soft-spoken turn is another step on the road for this eerie actor. Slipping his English accent seamlessly into American gangsterese, Hardy overtly pilfers from the De Niro playbook, but mostly he creates a lived-in character. Matthias Schoenaerts (Marion Cotillard’s partner in Rust and Bone) is formidable as a neighborhood creep, and John Ortiz squeezes unexpected moments from the cop role. Gandolfini, of course, owns this turf, and the late actor goes out strong—he can suggest a lifetime’s frustration just by the way he shoulders his bulk out of a car.
Such behavioral niceties, and Lehane’s ear for street talk, keep The Drop rooted in its concrete jungle. Opens Fri., Sept. 12 at Sundance Cinemas and other theaters. Rated R. 104 minutes.