[8 March 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Two damaged people join together to exorcise their individual demons in the dark, sometimes overly somber thriller Dead Man Down. It’s the latest from Danish filmmaker Niels Arden Oplev, the man responsible for the ridiculously good Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Bringing said film’s star, Noomi Rapace along to provide creative continuity, he takes a script from Fringe‘s J.H. Wyman that could have been a basic revenge actioner and turns it into a character study with stunts.
Granted, most of the mayhem doesn’t arrive until the last act, and there are a few too many scenes of hurt personalities brooding, but for the most part, this depressing Drive wannabe becomes something wholly its own. Call it Bleak Noir, or post-modern meditation on the corrupt nature of our existence, but what we have here is both foreign and familiar, yet another intriguing, if incomplete take on an age old Hollywood crime genre from someone far removed from it.
Victor (Colin Farrell) is an enforcer for a crime lord named Alphonse (Terrance Howard). Along with the rest of the crew, including best pal Darcy (Dominic Cooper), they help control drug trafficking and distribution for NYC big wig Lon Gordon (Armand Assante). When several members of the gang start turning up dead, everyone starts to worry. Even worse, Alphonse has been receiving cryptic notes from someone with an obvious agenda against him. Turns out, Victor is the threat, dishing out payback for something horrible that happened to him as a newly landed immigrant from Hungary.
While in the process of preparing his revenge, he befriends Beatrice (Rapace), a neighbor in his apartment complex and the victim of a drunk driving accident. Having left her both emotionally and physically scarred, she wants Victor to do what he does best - retribution. Unfortunately, our hero’s plans may not pan out since Darcy, looking for find favor with his boss, is hot on the trail of whomever is behind the deaths.
For many, Dead Man Down will play like a certain celebrated Ryan Gosling effort from 2011. From the loner on an ethical crime quest to the broken woman he befriends, there’s a clear copycat element at work here. Oplev, like his fellow Scandinavian countryman Nicolas Winding Refn, is in love with the hard boiled cinema of the ‘40s and ‘50s, a time of desperate men and the dames they defied along the way. The latter languished over the ‘go west’ wasteland of Los Angeles, while the former finds his niche in the grime and grit of an unnamed New York.
From unique locations to an excess of facial stubble, the pieces are in place for a revisionist look at losers and the seedy underbelly of life in the service of sin. There is a definite Euro-feel to everything, from Beatrice’s heritage (she’s French, and lives with her partially deaf, French speaking mother, played by Isabelle Huppert) to Victor’s Eastern bloc backstory. This is America viewed through the eyes of an outsider, and for much of the film it’s a tantalizing, if telling POV.
The problems lie in the execution. We just don’t expect a movie with this much anger to be so - subdued? Oplev made subtlety work to his advantage in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, if only because he had so much time to tackle his complicated narrative entanglements. Here, the story is simple - Victor wants revenge - and without any real story asides, the constant gloom comes across as a bit dull.
Similarly, Farrell is a false lead. He’s all hirsute and eyes, but that’s about it. We never get a deeper sense of his character, none of the nuances Gosling brought to Drive or Golden Era actors brought to their roles. He’s a mere pretty boy practicing at being bad. Rapace is much better since she is given both inward and outward injuries to display. With her face riddled with the remnants of many surgical incisions, she’s a constant source of interest, even when the movie gives her little to do except cry.
As for the rest of the cast, they are merely going through the motions. Howard as a heavy is effective, if fleeting. He has no real lasting impact. Similarly, when Assante shows up for his big scene, he plays it from the neck down - all tics and body twitches. Cooper can only claim the expositional high ground since his big moment comes before the opening credits role, while the surprising inclusion of F. Murray Abraham (as a connected relative of Victor’s) reminds us of his rollercoaster post-Oscar path.
As a result, this becomes Oplev’s calling card, a resume building bent on bringing him out of the international spotlight and into the glare of life making mainstream Hollywood movies…and for the most part, he acquits himself admirably. Sure, the finale is too firepower and the script loaded with question marks, but the film looks good.
Another issue is the script itself. Wyman might think he’s crafting a solid piece of work, but there are massive holes o’plenty. For example - how can Victor do what he does without anyone - ANYONE - knowing. He has worked in the crew for a long time, and has his lonely apartment tricked out with surveillance equipment and a hidden room of research. So NO ONE ever visits? His bosses never drop by to see if he’s the problem?
Also, what of the prisoner Victor keeps in the abandoned boat somewhere off the Hudson? Sure, he has a pad lock on the door to the hold where he is stashed, but shouldn’t someone - a bum, a bunch of bratty teens - have discovered his makeshift hideout by now? Dead Man Down is the kind of movie that hopes you don’t ask such questions. It wants you to assume a lot of circumstantial things (Victor would really kill someone in his own apartment, in full view of his neighbors including Beatrice?) without digging to deep into their viability.
Still, if one settles in and turns off the “how come” portion of their brain, Dead Man Down becomes a decent mid-Winter diversion. It reminds us that those outside the US often have a better view of who we are as a people than those of us living in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Victor and Beatrice may be broken to the core, but there’s hope for redemption here. How we get to it is the movie’s greatest strength, and it’s greatest struggle as well.