Petty Greatness: The Drop (and Gandolfini) find new life in lowlifes

Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini resonate in The Drop.
Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini resonate in The Drop. Barry Wetcher

Petty Greatness: The Drop (and Gandolfini) find new life in lowlifes

The Drop
Directed by Michaël R. Roskam.
Starring James Gandolfini and Tom Hardy.
Opens Thursday, September 11, at the Tivoli.

The Drop, the richly textured, beautifully acted film collaboration between Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam (Bullhead) and novelist-turned-screenwriter Dennis Lehane (Mystic River), takes place in the present, but its heart lies in the noirish past of both movies and literature. In that shadowy realm, tough guys are endlessly quotable, and most everyone — even the hero — is holding tight to a terrible secret. Actually, the dark, hooded eyes of The Drop's Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) might not be hiding a secret — he may just be lonely. Hard to say. Either way, he looks awfully sad. Imagine Rocky Balboa, if he had never met Adrian.

Bob lives alone in his dead mother's house, attends Mass at Saint Dominic's in the afternoon, and tends bar at night at Cousin Marv's, the Brooklyn dive owned by his actual cousin Marv (the late James Gandolfini). As the neighborhood loan shark, Marv once ruled his narrow stretch of the world, only to have his power snatched from under him by gangsters who came from nowhere — well, Chechnya — and took over. In the parlance of the neighborhood, Marv "blinked."

"Fucking Chechnyans," Marv complains, practically spitting. "They're Chechens, not Chechnyans," Bob replies, but it's no use. Marv isn't a man who corrects himself, which makes him as dangerous as ever.

The Drop has its fair share of thieves, thugs and sudden violence, but its driving force, it could be said, is a dog. A pit-bull puppy, to be exact, beaten and bloody but adorable, that Bob rescues from a trash can on his way home from work. The can belongs to Nadia (Noomi Rapace), a waitress who looks a bit battered herself, and who may know more than she's telling about how that mutt wound up tossed out. "I don't know what to do," Bob tells her, as he prepares to drive away with the dog. "I don't know anything." Reluctantly, the tense, guarded Nadia agrees to teach Bob how to care for (and love) another living creature.

A dog (who eventually gets a most excellent name) and a potential girlfriend in one fell swoop: For a churchgoing loner like Bob, this is just shy of miraculous. But this being Brooklyn noir, good news must be balanced with bad. A few nights later, two wiry, nervous men hold up the bar. It wasn't a "drop" night — it's Marv's five grand they steal — but the obscenely confident Chechen kingpin, Chovka (Michael Aronov), expects Marv, and by extension Bob, to find the culprits and get back the money. If they do, the bar could become the drop spot for Super Bowl Sunday, an honor Marv desperately desires, both for his small percentage of the cut and for the bragging rights to once again being a major player.

The Belgian Roskam, making only his second feature film, and his first in English, displays remarkable assurance, with both the actors and the film's very American setting. He creates an escalating sense of dread, tinged with Lehane's brand of mordant humor. Beware guys with wristwatches stuck at 6:15 and violently rocking unmarked vans. Or friends who are a bit too adept at getting rid of body parts. Men who are perpetually open to the possibility of violence can be surprisingly funny (in movies, anyway), so there's this, when Marv is offering a ride to a local who's reluctant to get in the car: "What?" Marv asks. "You think I got the trunk lined with plastic?"

In print that line sounds like pure Tony Soprano, but one of the many triumphs of Gandolfini's final performance is that we experience him, in each and every moment, as Cousin Marv. Tony is long gone, and if audiences (and critics) compare Marv to Tony, well, that's our foolishness, not the actor's. Lehane has written a powerhouse scene near the end of The Drop, when Marv explains his embittered worldview to Bob, whose own belief system has changed over the course of the movie. Not Marv. He's sitting in his living room, in his Barcalounger, and is literally, and figuratively, dug in deep.

It's a short scene, but Gandolfini is working from a place so potent that it feels afterward as if he's delivered a lengthy monologue. That scene, and this performance, might bring him posthumous awards, and that would be nice, but Gandolfini would surely be happier in the knowledge that Marv is going to live on, long past awards season, and long past the theatrical run of The Drop. Great actors live on in the movies, but they also live on in us.

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