There’s something weirdly poignant about seeing an actor who is no longer with us performing onscreen. It’s testament to the power of film; as a means of immortality, almost, but certainly of establishing a legacy. That James Gandolfini’s final role committed to film is a true-to-type Brooklyn wiseguy, and that it comes in a movie which eschews genre thrills in favour of rich characterisation, is particularly significant. If you’re only as good as your last performance, Gandolfini is very good indeed.
The Drop is a crime thriller penned by Dennis Lehane, in turn adapted from one of his own short stories. It conjures a remarkably textured and convincing blue-collar Brooklyn, despite being directed by a Belgian and fronted by a Brit. There’s a delicate, almost bruised quality to the world and its inhabitants, everyone and everything wounded by past trauma and culled into obsequiousness by a lingering sense of foreboding. The neighbourhood has seen better days, but it’s content. It’s always winter, but never quite Christmas.
The eponymous “drop” is an ostensibly legitimate business used as a temporary bank account for dirty money; in this case Cousin Marv’s bar, managed by Gandolfini’s compromised tough guy and tended by the subdued, introverted Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy). At one time Marv was well-regarded as a local big-shot, until his gambling debts spiralled out of control and Chechen gangsters were able to encroach on his turf. The deal is that Marv gets to keep his name above the door, so long as every once in a while, Bob deposits a sealed envelope full of cash into the hidden safe beneath the bar.
Tom Hardy lends Bob an authentic social awkwardness, but also a sentimental streak. We see it in how quick he is to retrieve an abandoned puppy from a trash can when he hears its muffled yelps on his way home from work; an act which introduces him to the tormented Nadia (Noomi Rapace), and earns the ire of her psychotic ex-boyfriend, Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts – almost unrecognisable as a European actor).
Hardy is a tremendous talent, blessed with not only Hollywood looks and the requisite build for physical roles, but also an uncanny ability to wordlessly emote. Bob is a taciturn man who tends to speak when he has to rather than simply to fill silence. It’s never addressed in the script, but he has the air of a savant, often remaining on the fringes of a conversation and making only surprisingly astute or pragmatic contributions. Very little gets him truly animated; even his burgeoning relationship with Nadia remains tepid, both of them perhaps a little too emotionally innocent for the lives they’re forced to lead.
Where The Drop succeeds is not in the typical macho bluster one would associate with a crime drama, but in how competently it creates a world for these characters to exist inside of. The primarily non-American cast turn in East Coast accents which, to my untrained ears at least, are virtually indistinguishable from the real thing; people – particularly those who frequent Cousin Marv’s – scratch out hard-scrabble lives, enduring trauma and loss but taking it in their stride; there’s a very real sense of community and connectedness, as though no other world exists outside of this one neighbourhood in this one borough of New York. Bob even religiously attends the same 8am mass as Detective Torres (John Ortiz), who spends the lion’s share of the movie investigating the disappearance of one of Marv’s former patrons.
That disappearance is supposedly the work of Eric Deeds, Nadia’s abusive, unhinged former boyfriend. Schoenaerts played the lead in director Michael R. Roskam’s debut feature, Bullhead, and he elevates every scene he’s in here with controlled menace. Every time he confronts Bob, be it about the dog he rescued – which Eric claims to be his – or his relationship with Nadia, there’s always a sense that violence is only a single word away. Yet The Drop is curiously, almost suspiciously, reserved when it comes to bloodshed. Lehane, the master of hardboiled thrillers, hasn’t gone soft just yet, but until the brutal final twist – an excellent one – there’s little on-camera conflict. Instead we get the looming threat, and the space we need to let it fester. In many ways, The Drop is as much about what could happen, or what has happened, as it is about what’s actually happening in the moment.
The Drop isn’t the work for which James Gandolfini will be most fondly remembered, nor should it be. Marv is far from his best or most memorable role, but he is a neat approximation of what we came to expect from the man over the course of his storied career. Browbeaten and bitter, he is almost a dulled reflection of Tony Soprano; perhaps 2013’s Enough Said would be a better choice for which of his final performances is most worth remembering him by.
Still, though. The Drop is an excellent addition to his filmography: a scaled-back crime drama brimming with atmosphere and character, anchored by superb performances across the board and elevated by a smart script and a satisfying twist. The ambiguous ending may leave something to be desired, but not all questions need an answer. Sometimes what we don’t know is just as important as what we do.
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