The Drop, which opens this week, is James Gandolfini’s last film. He plays “cousin Marv,” a big Brooklyn guy who owned a bar called Cousin Marv’s Bar. The bar was Marv’s life’s work. Yes, it was a dive bar populated by sorry-ass drunks, people running up tabs they couldn’t pay, but it was his. It would be his retirement. He was a big-shot. Maybe a little crooked, maybe he paid people off to keep his bar open, but it was his. He was somebody. That all changed when he started getting pressed by the Chechen mafia guys who started taking over the neighborhood. He fought back, but then couldn’t fight back anymore. He “blinked.” And now “they” own his bar, and he is just an employee. His worst nightmare has come true. He works for “the Man,” in this case “the Man” being some terrifying Chechens who milk him for payment, harass his employees, and worse. Marv is in a tight spot. I suppose you can’t blame him for doing some sketchy shit.
But there’s sketchy … and then there’s Sketchy(™).
In Gandolfini’s hands, Marv is a ruined man. He has lost his confidence, his standing in the world. He is ashamed of himself. He is afraid of the Chechens and becomes submissive when they stop by to tell him what to do. He is over-ingratiating. He hates himself afterwards. The Drop, an extremely effective thriller (with an unexpected mood of melancholy and loneliness), is yet another example of Gandolfini’s great range as an actor, and a reminder of what we lost when we lost him. Gandolfini has (of course) played gangsters and criminal bosses before. Marv is in that wheelhouse. But Marv is different from the others. Gandolfini understood the needs of Story, and was not afraid or hesitant to bring out what was necessary. His Marv is a case study in emasculation. You cringe watching him kow-tow to the gangsters, you cringe watching him submissively run around trying to do what they ask. You want him to show some spine. But Marv can’t. Once his confidence was lost, it was lost for good.
Based on a short story by Dennis Lehane, about a silent shy Brooklyn guy named Bob (cousin to cousin Marv), who works in Marv’s bar and who one night finds a baby pit bull, bloody and abandoned in a trash can, The Drop takes place in a 3-block radius. It’s a neighborhood in Brooklyn. The corruption goes to the center of the earth. The inhabitants of the neighborhood are busy trying to go about their lives. They watch the Super Bowl. They go to mass and nod hello to each other when they come back from getting communion. They all know each other. Their memories go way back. As E.B. White noted in his essay “Here Is New York,” the thing that tourists don’t get about New York is how small-town-provincial it really is. The boroughs are made up of hundreds of small neighborhoods, indistinguishable from Small Town U.S.A. Many people go their whole lives without leaving their small neighborhood. The gleaming towers of Manhattan across the river are akin to the Emerald City. The neighborhood is all.
Bob (Tom Hardy) works as a bartender in Marv’s bar. His parents are dead. He lives in the house where he grew up, cluttered with knick-knacks, little shelves in the corner with china angel figurines crowding up all available space. He walks to work. He walks home. He appears to be a good bartender. He is shy, almost recessive. The film opens with a tired voiceover from Bob, explaining how the “drop” system works in Brooklyn. It doesn’t sound like a script. The way Hardy does it, it sounds like he’s alone in his house at 3 a.m., maybe a little drunk, but still coherent, describing to somehow how it all goes down. Money moves around Brooklyn every night, from bookies and poker games and betting. Bars are chosen as “the drop bar,” and it’s rotating, and random, so that the money is always on the move, and nobody knows where it will all end up. You never know when your bar will be chosen to be “the drop bar.”
But Bob doesn’t seem to worry about all of that. He goes to 8 a.m. mass every morning. He pours drinks all night. He is kind to those who line belly-up to the bar, even the old drunk lady who can’t pay her tab. He lets her sit there anyway.
Bob is a case study, too. although it is not clear of what, and half of the fun of The Drop is watching the character emerge, reveal himself. It would be impossible to say too much without giving the game away. There is a “Gotcha” element here, although that’s not the point. It’s not a puzzle to be pieced together and all is then understood. There are things to learn about Bob, and we don’t learn them until the movie is almost completely over. What we learn, though, is not half as illuminating as what we get from his behavior. What a character he has created. He reminds me a lot of Rocky Balboa (and there is even a courtship scene in a pet shop), although Rocky was almost completely benign, and you get the sense that Bob, recessive though he may seem, has a wealth of strength underneath that gentleness, strength that could turn into something dangerous. But for the majority of the film, you just don’t know.
All you see is a guy of few words who finds a dog in a trash can, and decides to take it home and take care of it. He doesn’t know anything about dogs. He is not sure if he is ready for the responsibility. The dog is a puppy. It will need to be trained. Bob works all night every night. The dog has been brutalized by its former owner, whoever that was. It has a bloody cut on its head. It has been thrown in the trash. That just isn’t right.
Nadia (Noomi Rapace) catches Bob in the act of digging around in her trash can for the dog, and wonders what the hell he is doing and who the hell he is. She is wary and suspicious. Bob seems completely benign, bovine even … but still, a girl can’t be too careful. She doesn’t know anything about the dog. It is not hers. After taking photographs of Bob’s license and texting it to 4 friends (just in case he kills her later), she lets Bob and the dog come into her house so they can clean up the dog’s injuries. She volunteered for a summer in an animal shelter when she was in high school. Bob is quietly amazed by that. And by her.
Now. There’s a ton of plot in The Drop. There are gangsters and old scores to settle and violence and a couple of missing persons. There is a suspicious detective, snooping around cousin Marv’s bar. There are bossy Chechens, dark alleys, scary confrontations. All of this is filmed with moody sensitivity by Roskam (the cinematographer was Nicolas Karakatsanis, who also shot Roskam’s film Bullhead, incidentally starring Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, who plays a terrifying character here as Rapace’s scary ex-boyfriend). The streets gleam wetly. They are deserted, ominous. Bodies can disappear easily here. The little strings of Christmas lights people twine around their chain link fences in front of their homes appear to be talismanic symbols to ward off evil.
But the plot isn’t “the thing” with The Drop. If it were only its plot, it would have been like any other crime thriller. But Tom Hardy, from the moment he starts speaking in that exhausted voiceover that opens the film, creates a compelling and mysterious character. He is quiet. His quiet nature draws you to him. What is he thinking? What do we see in his eyes? What does he want? I wasn’t sure about him. We see everything through his eyes but we are not sure his perspective. That’s very important. It’s why the performance works so well and seems to expand in the mind when the film ends.
Nadia tells him what to get at the pet store, and what pit bulls like, what to feed it, she suggests he read a certain book about pit bulls. “This book has everything in it,” she says. Bob does what she says. Well, he doesn’t read the book. He’s not really a reading man.
Elia Kazan said that good acting was psychology revealed through behavior, and the scenes between Hardy and Rapace are revelatory in terms of Behavior. A lot of scripts miss this, and think that good acting probably means good actors saying a lot of words explaining the psychology of the character. The script here is pared down to its barest minimum. The people in this world do not divulge, they do not open up, they have not read self-help books, they do not explain themselves. They don’t have the words. But the feelings are strong. Often this type of material can be condescending, and actors sometimes inadvertently take condescending attitudes about such characters. Nobody does that here. Bob and Nadia have somehow found themselves connected, because of the pit bull, and she watches the dog while Bob works at the bar, and they meet up and go for walks with the dog, and it all seems to happen via creep.
Suddenly … they are friends. Somehow.
She has a scar on her neck. He has noticed it. You get the sense that bovine Bob notices everything. She tells him she got it when she was a junkie. She did it to herself. She was a different person then. She’s clean now. She’s doing better. He takes this all in. He doesn’t judge. She admits to him she had a boyfriend who was a pain in the ass and dangerous and she’s still scared of him. She admits this, almost afraid that Bob will get jealous, or that he won’t like that she was once with someone else, or any other long list of misogynistic reasons that men punish women for having lives before they came around. We’ve all been there. But Bob doesn’t live life like that. It doesn’t seem to occur to him at all to judge Nadia for having a past. He’s glad she’s not with that guy anymore: that guy sounds like a jerk.
These scenes are very romantic, although the two never touch. They don’t kiss. They sit and talk. They stand outside her house after walking the dog, and say goodbye. He walks home alone. She goes into her house. 3/4s of the way through the film, with everything else that was going on, I found myself aching to see them get together. To at least embrace. What would that be like? How would they handle it? How would they be together? How would they get over the shyness and wordlessness to connect on that primal level? And I took note of my reaction, and realized that the film was working on a profound level if I was aching to see two fictional characters kiss. This was not just a matter of chemistry or anything like that. I couldn’t even tell if they had chemistry. Both characters are too buried in their game-faces to have much chemistry at all. But there was something there. Something tender and small, and I wondered what it would be like if it were allowed some room to breathe.
The “romance” is not even the point of the film, although it became the focal point for me. I could not get enough of their scenes together. I wanted to crawl up into the screen to get a closer look at each glance, each thought, each hesitation. It was so rich. There’s a scene where he invites her in to his place. They sit in his kitchen and have a couple of beers. Bob is not a humorous character, and there are times when I wondered if he had no sense of humor at all. If, somehow, this was a quality he lacked. Nadia is asking him about himself: how do you know Marv, how long you been at the bar, etc. Bob is open with her. He doesn’t play things cool at all. He says, “Marv and my mother … they were sisters.” Nadia starts laughing and he doesn’t know why she is laughing. You can see him wonder if maybe he’s being made fun of. She knows it was just a slip of the tongue, but it’s funny anyway. She says, “You said Marv and your mom were sisters …” Bob gets the joke then. Smiles faintly, but a hundred other things are going on with him at that tiny moment that lasts a millisecond. He is completely out of practice being intimate. Maybe he’s never been intimate. He is also not accustomed to hanging out and laughing about things. It’s a muscle that has not been developed. He likes this woman. He likes her so much. So maybe it’s okay that she’s laughing. But he’s not sure. He laughs, though, because he likes her, and says, gently, “Why you raggin’ on me right now …” He’s almost hurt. She says, “No, I’m not … it was just funny.” And you can almost see him relax. It’s tiny, but it’s there.
I just spent 75 words describing a moment that lasts 2 seconds. But that’s how rich it was. I almost wanted to look away. Oh God, these people are having a courtship, and they’re very shy and I honestly should not be watching. Vulnerability. That’s what was there.
The swoop-y romantic music that filled the screen at its final moment did not ring true. The Drop is not a heartwarming story. It is a brutal story about a brutal world. In The Drop, there are things you must do in order to keep your world safe. Marv wasn’t strong enough for that; he caved at the first sign of pressure. Will Bob? There is evil in this world. You must crush it, because the nature of evil means it will seep in through the floorboards if you are not vigilant about it. You can feel the material’s short story roots (pit bulls: misunderstood/beaten/turned into monsters by dick owners, Bob: maybe a misunderstood pit bull himself, maybe if he saves the pit bull he can save himself, maybe Nadia needs to be saved too, and etc., there’s a lot of that symbolic dovetailing going on), but I didn’t mind it. It didn’t feel shallow or manipulative.
The “drop system” in Brooklyn, the process by which money is laundered, secretly, and on a vast scale throughout the borough, is interesting. Marv is caught in the pincers of a system where he once was King. Bob sees everything, and sees how Marv is not up to the task. Marv, though, has some tricks up his sleeve. Nobody is clean. Nobody is innocent.
We’ve seen it all before.
And we’ve seen courtship between two shy people before, too. Rocky and Adrian again.
But Roskam and Lehane (who also wrote the screenplay) keep it simple. Keep it quiet and steady. The characters remain the focus, as the events pile up. Gandolfini manages to be both despicable and tragic. Hardy manages to be both shy and forbidding. Rapace manages to be sweet as well as hard-shelled, for very good reasons. Openness is not really a possibility here. Yet openness comes anyway.
What happens between Hardy and Rapace happens between the lines, up and around and below the words. It takes them a long time to get to the point. They are pretty much dating long before they kiss. People at the bar tease Bob about “havin’ a girl” and all they are doing is taking walks with the dog. It’s old-fashioned. Put into the context of the surrounding neighborhood, and its violence and long memories, the romance starts to seem even more fragile and precious. Nothing innocent can survive in that world. This is an innocent romance. And it barely exists. It’s not “on the page.” It exists in the pauses, the thoughts in their eyes, the hesitations. Their scenes together are amazing. I didn’t “root for” Bob. I didn’t “root for” Nadia. It’s not really that kind of movie. But I did find myself rooting – HARD – for them together.
The Drop opens end of this week. I highly recommend it.