The Drop was the final film James Gandolfini completed before his untimely passing last year. Regrettably, that footnote is likely to be this film’s only lasting legacy. That’s too bad because he deserved a better send off. Not that The Drop is a bad film—it isn’t. Adapted by celebrated author Dennis Lehane from his own short story titled “Animal Rescue,” The Drop marks the English language debut of Belgian filmmaker Michael R. Roskam, whose previous film Bullhead received a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination in 2012. Like that feature, this is an absorbing character study—full of working-class flavor and damaged characters trying to court redemption. It’s also a fine showcase for Tom Hardy, who continues to be one of the most exciting actors in the biz. But in spite of these strong individual elements, the film never finds its footing the way you’d expect it to.
Set mostly in and around a “divey” Brooklyn pub called Cousin Marv’s over the course of a blistery winter, The Drop centers on Bob Saginowski (Hardy), a simple, soft-spoken bartender who keeps to himself. Bob works for his cousin Marv (Gandolfini), a grizzled man who, as the title of the bar suggests, used to once own the place until the Chechen mafia took it over. On some nights, typically big sporting events, the Chechens use the joint as a drop off point for their money laundering activities—hence the title. One evening, two dim-witted thugs hold up the place and slip off with five grand. This puts Marv and Bob in a bind with the Chechens who want their money back, no matter what.
That’s not the only problem Bob has to contend with. During the film’s opening moments, he finds a puppy lying in a dumpster, half beaten to death. Despite knowing nothing about dogs, he’s coaxed by Nadia (Noomi Rapace), a woman with outrageous social issues, to adopt the pup. He even names it Rocco, after St. Rocco—the patron saint of dogs. Before long, he’s being harassed by a bizarre, physically-imposing nutcase named Eric Deeds (Bullhead star Matthias Schoenaerts) who starts blackmailing him about the dog.
As with many of Lehane’s works, these two seemingly disparate storylines eventually converge, both in theme and narrative. Like Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, the best film adaptations of Lehane’s work, The Drop brims with damaged characters with secrets. But unlike those films, Roskam’s effort lacks a grand finishing touch. It arrives at its conclusion with a shrug rather than a bang. Lehane’s screenwriting missteps calls to mind the situation that Cormac McCarthy found himself in last fall with The Counselor. A great novelist doesn’t always make a great screenwriter. Roskam prosaic directorial flourishes are equally, if not more, to blame. He shoots the movie in the same drab color palette seen in every other 21st century New York-set crime thriller. Splice the frames of The Drop with Killing Them Softly or We Own the Night or even Brooklyn’s Finest and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
At least Lehane is able to find fruit with his characters, even if they’re made intriguing only because of the actors playing them. Hardy, who gave one of the year’s strongest performances in Locke, carves another memorable figure here. When we first meet Bob, we’re not sure what to make of him. Is he legitimately dimwitted or is he just pretending to be one? As the film progresses, we’re even less sure. And what’s with his Mof Def crossed with Marlon Brando voice? It’s a carefully constructed study—one that’s equally mysterious and charming.
While Gandolfini’s performance won’t make the upper echelons as far as last screen performances go, his Cousin Marv is a lesson in quiet desperation. With just a grunt here or a grimace there, the late actor makes us empathize with the desperation and anger simmering inside this not-so-wise man. That’s of course when Roskan and Lehane give him a chance to. Gandolfini’s understated work here doesn’t hold a candle to Tony Soprano or his wonderful performance in last year’s Enough Said but he makes the character feel real. It’s another reminder of how much of a phenomenal presence he was. The world of television and film is dimmer without him in it.
Director: Michaël R. Roskam
Writers: Dennis Lehane
Principal Cast: Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace, Matthias Schoenaerts, John Ortiz
Editing: Christopher Tellefsen
Cinematography: Nicolas Karakatsanis
Music: Marco Beltrami, Raf Keunen
Running time: 106 minutes
Companies: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Rating: R for some strong violence and pervasive language.