‘The Drop’: A Fitting Conclusion to James Gandolfini’s Character Actor Legacy

The Drop arrives in theaters with an unintended poignancy and finality, for it is the last film appearance by the late, great James Gandolfini. The distinction between it and last year’s Enough Said feels like a matter of semantics — that was his final leading role, whereas this is a decidedly supporting one. He is third billed, behind Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace, and that’s accurate; this is Tom Hardy’s movie, and (to a lesser degree) Rapace’s. If Enough Said hinted, tantalizingly, at the kind of unconventional leading-man turns we might have seen more of, The Drop reminds us of what Gandolfini always did well: providing support, heft, and color, in the tradition of our finest character actors.

The film, written by Dennis Lahane (from his short story “Animal Rescue,” the film’s initial — and more evocative — title), stars Hardy as Bob Saginowski, who tends bar at the Brooklyn dive run by Cousin Marv (Gandolfini). Marv used to own the joint, but lost it years back to Chechen gangsters, who now use it as one of the “drop bars” for collecting ill-gotten gains. One night, two punks rob the bar and steal the drop money, which means trouble not only for those guys, but for Marv and Bob, who are expected to recover it. Around the same time, Bob finds a badly beaten pit bull in the trash can of a neighborhood woman (Rapace); they nurse it back to health, and find a connection forming, until an unstable old boyfriend (a chilling Matthias Schoenaerts) shows up.

The way Lahane weaves those two stories into each other is clever enough; the way that narrative dovetails into an old, unsolved crime is one of the writer’s specialties, an uncertain present pushing up against, and opening up, the past. Bob is a character who just sort of takes everything as it comes, unblinkingly (“Me? I just tend bar, and wait,” he explains in the opening narration), but you can tell he’s seen things — by the way he carries himself, by the way he chooses his words, and by the way he turns up at the neighborhood church at 8am sharp, every day, for morning mass.

Director Michaël R. Roskam (Bullhead) burrows into the neighborhood nexus of crime and the church with a familiarity that recalls Scorsese’s Mean Streets, as does the picture’s ear for the music of scrappy, half-heard bar conversations. Roskam’s instincts occasionally fail him — I’m not sure what the hell accent Rapace is doing — but his direction (assisted, in no small part, by Marco Beltrami’s hypnotic score) conveys a sense of unnerving, slowly accumulating dread, particularly in a tense sequence in the bar on Super Bowl Sunday. The sound design here should be taught in film schools — he selectively pulls out the natural sound and pulls up the music at key points like an orchestral conductor. And that climactic scene takes a tonal turn that’s applause-worthy; I won’t give anything away, except to say that what could have been unintentional laughter is instead earned, and rewarding. I’m not quite sure how they pulled it off, but I’m glad they went for it.

Much of the credit for that scene — and the entire film — working as well as it does goes to Hardy, who here performs yet another of his impressive transformations. It hardly seems possible that this is the same man who played Bane or Locke, but he doesn’t overdo it, either; he just disappears into this character, and gets on with it. It’s an endlessly rich performance, unpredictable and sharp-edged, with a vulnerability that is, I swear to you, reminiscent of Brando in On the Waterfront. Yet it’s not overwhelmed by Big Moments, the actor instead relying on a handful of key moments to snap the entire character into focus.

And it says something, about both Hardy and Gandolfini, that the former performance is the one you’ll come out of The Drop talking about. This is not to imply that Gandolfini isn’t great in the movie — he’s doing the kind of gruff, no-nonsense, sleepy-eyed and world-weary turn that he did better than anyone, every role lived in, and often lived in hard. When he and Hardy go at it in a powerful scene late in the picture, finally saying all the things to each other that they’ve politely kept to themselves for years, it’s a formidable battle. But Gandolfini lets Hardy have it, because it’s his scene. Aside from being quietly tragic and frequently funny (the way he spits out “I’ll see you at two, you fuckin’ idiot” is comic perfection) and just plain good, he’s also generous, as he always was in secondary roles from True Romance to The Mexican to Killing Them Softly. That’s the kind of work he’d have continued doing had the stars not aligned on The Sopranos, and this is the kind of actor he always was, at heart — playing the back, filling in the blanks, and raising authenticity to an art form.

The Drop is out tomorrow in limited release.