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James Gandolfini and Tom Hardy ponder a grim situation in The Drop.
James Gandolfini and Tom Hardy ponder a grim situation in The Drop.

It’s likely that the late James Gandolfini’s performance in The Drop will be lauded in tearfully hyperbolic fashion, maybe even to the point where it overshadows the movie. In all honesty, Gandolfini is pretty good — think of his best scenes in The Sopranos, particularly the ones in which his New Jersey mobster loses his cool in fits of murderous, bed-headed rage. Like Tony, his Marv in The Drop is menacingly brooding, but instead of fighting for his life, Marv is a gangster gone to seed, collapsing under the weight of life with no viable avenues for egress. The bar he ran has long since been taken from him by Chechen mobsters. Still working there, he lives with his sister, who wants to pull the plug on their elderly father, ailing and semi-conscious in an assisted-living facility. There is no joy for Marv, and his only hope is to rob his former business. Marv simmers with rage, but Gandolfini never lets him totally blow it, painting a character who is desperate and dangerous while remaining keenly aware of the dangers of what he is doing.

Gandolfini is understated here, but he’s not the only one carrying the dramatic burden. As Bob Saginowski, Marv’s cousin and a bar employee, Tom Hardy creates a character who is outwardly simple, submissive even, a person for whom bluster only leads to trouble. And yet, for the first two acts, Hardy plays Bob’s true self so close to the vest that it’s nearly invisible. It’s a performance that’s at least as gripping as Gandolfini’s, perhaps even more so because the late actor’s heavy breathing and rancorous, rapid-fire Jersey-accented deliver are already a brand. This is new territory for Hardy, and you hardly recognize him.

The film’s title is a reference to the mob practice of leaving ill-gotten money in illicit “banks,” a rotating, random network of bars that stash the cash for safe-keeping until the heat dies down. One night, as Bob and Marv are closing the bar, a pair of robbers make off with five grand. Bob relates a detail to the police that results in the mysterious return of the cash — along with a culprit’s severed forearm. Bob knows the Chechens expect to get the money back, though he doesn’t know that Marv has secret plans that are quietly spinning out of control.

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Along with the troubles at the bar, Bob acquires a pit bull puppy, found whimpering and bloody in a trash can belonging to Nadia (Noomi Rapace). She shows him how to care for the dog, which puts him in the crosshairs of Nadia’s psychopathic ex, Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts), who is suspected of having murdered a neighborhood resident some 10 years earlier.

Belgian director Michaël Roskam essentially lets the actors dictate the pace, and given that Hardy’s Bob is slow to speak, slow to react, and walks with a tightened limp, the film moves at a slow boil. Writer Dennis Lehane’s loose ends slowly knot together, given life with the barest hints of gallows humor and inexorable momentum as Marv’s plan unravels. The action is spare and matter-of-fact, and the subplot with the puppy and Nadia carefully shades Bob’s underlying soul, a spark that Bob seems to have to work to keep alive.

This is pretty grim material, made even more dour by its wintry setting, and yet Bob’s measured words and careful walk somehow make the movie breathe.

Since this is Gandolfini’s final film, it’s fitting that his stellar performance isn’t wasted on something sub-par, unlike, say, Raul Julia’s final role as the villain of Street Fighter or even Philip Seymour Hoffman’s in A Most Wanted Man. The Drop is worthy of actors of the caliber of Gandolfini, Hardy, and Rapace, and Roskam gives his characters the space they deserve.

 

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The Drop

Starring Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace, and Matthias Schoenaerts. Directed by Michaël Roskam. Written by Dennis Lehane, based on his own novel. Rated R.

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