You have been here before — many times. You might never have been to New Yawk, but you know a Brooklyn accent, and Tom Hardy’s latest voice hangs like fog over the opening scene. The setting is quickly established, as the audience eases into familiar ground: Hardy’s character Bob tends a ‘drop’ bar where the local Chechen mafia sometimes store dirty money. Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), once a big player in the local crime network, runs the bar as little more than the mafia’s puppet. Late one night, as they are shutting up the bar, two guys in clown masks hold the place up — big mistake: “Do you know what you’re doing? Do you know whose money you’re jacking?”
Dennis Lehane wrote the screenplay for The Drop. He also wrote those for Shutter Island, Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River, and chunks of The Wire. So he has had a big hand in shaping the genre, and even if this plot seems derivative, perhaps he is just revisiting his own themes. Here he manages to create a throaty sense of place, in spite of his cast of stars. Dim tungsten glows warm the rich, muddy reds and browns of the bar; outside, a familiar unblinking white sky, sniffing pink noses, and the muffled crunch of snow underfoot. The church and the bar fight for the scraps of mens’ souls. Blurred movements in the foreground of shots simmer tension, and old-timers get aphoristic: “We’re dead already, we’re just still walking around.” So far, so familiar — what sets this apart?
The Drop is the late James Gandolfini’s final complete feature film, as A Most Wanted Man was Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s. In a sense, with the release of these films, they die a second death. Watching their last films is agonising: both of them are wheezing, smoking, swollen – and sad. Both actors were remarkable at hovering between burly gravitas and sensitivity, each aspect made the more striking by the other.
Gandolfini is excellent, if underused, here as Marv. He broods over his bar, thinks wistfully of former glory days that never really were, mumbles obsequiously when the mob are there; bullies when they are not. He wants to be something he cannot: “The neighbourhood changed: it wasn’t enough to be tough anymore, you know, you had to be mean.” Towards the end there is a typical moment of wrenching sensitivity from Gandolfini: snug on a couch, more gruffalo than gangster, he berates and whines at Bob for not fulfilling his potential. Berates and whines, because part of him knows that the power in their relationship has shifted, but also because he is really talking to himself.
Hardy has clearly got one eye on Marlon Brando, and the other on Ryan Gosling in Drive. Bob is ponderous, pensive even. His movements are very deliberate; his expression level, to the point of seeming dim-witted. His thick blooded lips hang still, whether he is handling severed limbs, squaring up to psychopaths or pouring shots. The film is preoccupied with Hardy, and it wants you to be as well: who is this guy, really? He goes to mass every morning but does not take communion, and he saves roughed up puppies from trashcans. Is he straightforward but slow, or something more? The film is at pains to interest you in him, but even Hardy’s brooding charisma struggles to enliven such a hackneyed character.
The pace throughout is leisurely: this is more of a drama than a thriller. It lays things out slowly, keeping many narrative cards close to its chest before playing its hand right at the end. The slowness is a reflection of Bob’s, and it is interspersed with moments of casual grisly violence. When the end comes, it does not surprise. We get the usual step back and reappraisal: crime, and its consequences, is half calculated, half random; there are hoods like Bob who bide their time, and hoods that do not, and we all know who lives longest.