It seems strangely fitting that the final major roles from both Philip Seymour Hoffman (in A MOST WANTED MAN) and James Gandolfini (in this week's release THE DROP) are portraits of soul-crushing loneliness. Both actors have played in this sandbox before, but in both roles, the emptiness leads to careless and poor decisions that impact the rest of their lives.
Written by novelist Dennis Lehane (GONE BABY GONE, MYSTIC RIVER, SHUTTER ISLAND) and based on his short story "Animal Rescue," THE DROP marks the second powerful work from Belgium-born director Michaël R. Roskam, who helmed the 2012 Best Foreign Language Oscar-nominee, BULLHEAD. The film centers of former thug and current Brooklyn bartender Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy of LOCKE, WARRIOR, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES) who works with his cousin Marv (Gandolfini) at a bar that is used to funnel cash from various numbers rackets, payoffs and other criminal activities. Like many other bars around the borough, this is a "drop bar," where cash is literally handed to the bartender, who in turn drops it into a safe he doesn't have access to. After the close of business, the cash is picked up—end of story.
About 10 years earlier, Marv used to actually own the bar, until the Chechnyan mob came in, Marv flinched, and now they own it. Needless to say, Marv is still sore about the situation, and he continues to talk a somewhat fictionalized game about his power status in the neighborhood before the Chechnyans took over. Now he lives with his sister (Ann Dowd), and he's miserable with his lot in life.
Bob also lives alone, but his prospects are better. He meets Nadia, (Noomi Rapace), a woman from the neighborhood, when he finds a beat-up dog in her trashcan that he promises to nurse back to health (with her help) and keep as his own. Bob plays his emotional cards close to his chest, but it's clear that he has a soft spot for the dog and Nadia. Before long, Bob also meets Nadia's ex-boyfriend, a real scumbag named Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts, who starred in director Roskam's BULLHEAD and is a genuine, quite threatening scene stealer here), who seems to have hatched a blackmail scheme in which he gets money and the girl from Bob.
As with most of his film work (if you haven't seen LOCKE yet, you owe it to yourself), Hardy is the kind of nuanced actor that you just sit back and observe. Every mannerism, every look, every movement is so clearly deliberate yet utterly natural that he disappears into each character he plays so completely, you forget that you're watching an actor. But we also come to suspect that Bob's low-key demeanor is masking something about the man inside. Is it intelligence, or something much darker? His exchanges with the police detective (John Ortiz) after the bar is robbed of a relatively small amount of cash (thankfully, not the drop money) are worth paying close attention to. Is he getting tripped up by the detective into spilling certain details, or is he deliberately leaking bits of information to send the cops in a specific direction?
Gandolfini's Marv is the living definition of frustration. He's never gotten past what he views as his own potential as a made man getting cut short by these invading Chechnyans, and he seems intent on evening the score without really thinking things through. In many ways, Marv is the closest Gandolfini has come to playing a Tony Soprano type since that show left the air, but imagine if Tony lost his power and was forced to run a gas station. Marv was never a truly powerful man, but the sentiment and hurt feelings are enough to drive him to make several stupid moves.
THE DROP has several connected plot threads, and we spend much of the film wondering which will get tied up and which will get cut loose. I would have liked to have seen Rapace's Nadia get a little more built up, rather than simply being portrayed as a woman to get passed around from one brooding asshole to the next, slightly less brooding one. My guess is that there was more detail in her character at some point, and it was the first to get cut either in the script or in the editing room. But for the most part, the film is beautifully realized, from the gloomy score to the lovely, stark cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis (who also shot BULLHEAD).
Director Roskam does a great job capturing the neighborhood, where anything that might be considered aesthetically pleasing is stomped out in favor of more of the same dull colors and shapes. Setting the story in the winter only adds to the lack of color and warmth (literally and figuratively). THE DROP has a few terrific, if low-key, surprises scattered throughout, and in a film that could have simply been a solid character study, the fact that it also has a complex plot boosts its gravitas in just the right places. I guess that's my way of saying that, not only does the movie feature a great final performance from James Gandolfini, but it's a work of substance in many other ways.