To fully appreciate “The Drop,” which opens this week, make it a double bill with “Enough Said.” When James Gandolfini died in June 2013, he left those two movies in the can, and they show us the range of our loss.
“Enough Said” earned him a Screen Actors Guild nomination as a shy, shambling man who thinks being fat, foolish and 50 means he has no chance for love. “The Drop” returns him to a criminal milieu, but not as a “Sopranos”-style kingpin: He’s Marv, who blinked when Chechen mobsters moved into Brooklyn and who no longer owns the bar that bears his name. It has become a “drop” bar, a place where criminals store money that can’t go into a bank, and he plans to enrich himself and exact vengeance at the same time.
The main character is actually his cousin, a quiet bartender named Bob (Tom Hardy). But the fear, sadness and suppressed rage that leak out of Marv’s scowling face make Gandolfini a scene-stealer whenever he shows up. (I wondered whether Belgian director Michaël R. Roskam, who’s making his English-language debut, would have used Gandalfini more in the film if he’d lived longer.)
Dennis Lehane’s books – “Gone Baby Gone,” “Mystic River,” “Shutter Island” – have been adapted into gripping films, but this is the first screenplay Lehane wrote himself and the first to come from a short story (“Animal Rescue,” set like the rest of his work around Boston). Like all the others, it has a powerful and unexpected shift in tone near the end; unlike the others, that shift invalidates some of the behavior that preceded it.
Because this does come from a short piece, plot has less significance here. The sympathetic Bob tries to juggle the demands of four people: Marv, the heartless smiling Chechen who wants Bob and Marv to restore money taken in a robbery, a neighbor named Nadia (Noomi Rapace) for whom Bob develops slow-burning feelings of affection, and a neighborhood psycho who tries to blackmail Bob (Matthias Schoenaerts).
The story has overtones of “On the Waterfront”: an inarticulate but likable guy who works for mobsters but tries to disassociate himself psychologically, a tough girl in jeopardy, a jovial thug who thinks he can’t be brought down (Michael Aronov), a man of conscience who keeps prodding Bob to do the right thing and testify against wrongdoing. (In this case, he’s a cop played by John Ortiz, rather than a priest.)
Yet Lehane and Roskam offer no moral messages and extend little hope that goodness can survive, let alone prevail. The story suggests, as Lehane’s work usually does, that the best one can hope to do is stay out of the line of fire when the inevitable bullets fly.
Except for Gandolfini, who came from New Jersey, the leads are international: Hardy’s British, Rapace Swedish, Schoenaerts Belgian. (He starred in Roskam’s Oscar-nominated foreign-language film, “Bullhead.”) Yet they settle into their Brooklynese roles well, with Hardy giving another of those ambiguous, don’t-turn-your-back-on-him performances that make him an asset to any film.