the-dropIn a film of firsts and lasts, the old pro clearly outshines the first-timer.

The Drop, the final film featuring late actor James Gandolfini, opened in limited release and marked the English-language directorial debut of Belgian Director Michaël R. Roskam. and the feature-writing debut of renowned crime novelist Dennis Lehane. In classic Lehane fashion, The Drop is a raw crime thriller that focuses more on its characters than it does spinning hardboiled mystery.

Bob (Tom Hardy) is a bartender at a run-down dive in Brooklyn that the Russian mafia routinely uses for the drop of the film’s title. Along with his Cousin Marv (Gandolfini), Bob is tasked with keeping the bar in business as a front for the mob and serving as a location where dirty money can be exchanged between gangsters.

Despite his rough environment, Bob leads a pretty quiet and solitary life until he finds a dog in a trash can belonging to Nadia (Noomi Rapace), and decides to take in the abused stray as his own. Little does Bob know that the dog actually belongs to Nadia’s ex-boyfriend Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), a mentally unstable tough guy with a murderous past. Deeds begins tormenting Bob in a twisted attempt to get his dog and girl back.

Things begin to spiral out-of-control for Cousin Marv as well. After a pair of young kids looking to make a name for themselves rob his bar, Marv finds himself in debt to Russian gangsters for what the kids stole and begins considering a few desperate measures in order to repay his debt.

The Drop is a total slow-burn of a crime thriller. Its pace is absolutely glacial with regards to plot, but it does not waste any time on character as it explores its two leads to their greatest depths as we meet two men on the edge of the law whose lives aren’t quite what they’d like them to be.

Lehane’s characters are in very capable hands with Gandolfini and Hardy in the leads. Both actors find remarkable depth in characters who prefer to keep everything as far from the surface as possible, externalizing the internal. Hardy’s performance is particularly strong, as Lehane provides Bob with a sideways journey that’s tough for an actor to navigate but Hardy manages to make feel fully natural even as his character is revealed in an unconventional manner.

The pace does drown The Drop a bit, though Roskam creates an incredible mood and finds suspense in spots that most directors would not. This allows for tension to turn hard even as the plot winds very slowly. In a lesser director’s hands, this film would have been a real bore, but Roskam plays the mood so well that he manages to keep a film where there isn’t much happening as gripping as a fast-paced thriller.

But there’s something missing in The Drop and it’s a clear theme. A purpose for this story’s existence. It’s a pretty solid story that’s very well told and acted, but at the end it just ends up a pretty standard crime thriller that’s buoyed by solid direction and some excellent performances. With so much talent apparent on the screen, they’re let down by material that doesn’t seek to find anything beyond its plot in the final product. Very strange considering how light on plot the film really is.

Blame the rookie.