Dead Man Down (United States, 2013)

March 09, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Dead Man Down Poster

Is revenge a viable path to redemption? That's the question posed by Niels Arden Oplev's Dead Man Down, the Danish director's introduction to U.S.-funded productions. With a cast populated by serious actors (not necessarily A-list stars but men and women with respected "names"), this film slowly and methodically explores a common ground for noir thrillers before stumbling and imploding in a climax that feels like it might have been hijacked from an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.

The tone and content of Dead Man Down are at least as dark as those of his international sensation, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. J.H. Wyman's screenplay isn't afraid to chuck viewers in the deep end to see if they sink or swim. The opening scenes don't provide a connect-the-dots explanation of what's going on; we have to stick with the movie and put the pieces together. It's not that the film is obscure or confusing but it requires a little patience and work. The style is unfriendly to those who watch movies with one eye on the screen and the other eye on their cellphone.

There are two obvious problems. The first is that the dialogue is occasionally awkward and sometimes embarrassing. The other is that, after spending roughly 90 minutes in slow-boil mode, Oplev lets loose with an orgy of violence and explosions that's out of character with everything leading up to it. It's a messy way to end things that will dissatisfy viewers expecting something a little more subtle and intelligent.

Dead Man Down's protagonist is Victor (Colin Farrell), a member of the "crew" working for a thug named Alphonse (Terrence Howard). We soon learn that Victor isn't the loyal toady he appears to be - he joined Alphonse's group over a year ago with a specific agenda: get close to the boss, make him suffer, then kill him. He rightly blames Alphonse for the deaths of his wife and daughter and he intends to exact revenge. Things are moving according to schedule until he is spotted strangling one of his fellow flunkies. His actions are observed by Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), an embittered woman who immediately sees a way to turn the situation to her benefit. She embarks upon a blackmail scheme: she'll keep Victor's secret if he'll do something for her. One side of her face is badly scarred as a result of a car accident caused by a drunk driver who did relatively little time in jail as a penance for destroying her life. She wants Victor to kill him.

Dead Man Down progresses slowly, charting Victor's evolving plans to torment Alphonse while developing a tentative romance between Victor and Beatrice. Both are wounded souls desperately seeking some kind of human contact. Victor nurses his despair regularly by watching old home videos of his dead daughter in which he promises to protect her from "monsters." Beatrice has become a hermit, thinking herself more ugly than she actually is (although some local kids mercilessly tease her whenever she emerges from the high rise apartment where she lives with her mother). Their interaction is believably hesitant for two people under the influence of such torment. Eventually, they admit how they feel by actions before putting those feelings into words.

A number of years ago, Colin Farrell took a left turn away from impending stardom by choosing to work in lower budget, below-the-radar films. This is another of those and it illustrates how well he can play an introverted, revenge-driven man. It's a tightly controlled performance and Farrell's work brings out the pain Victor suffers as a result of being unable to give up the past. Noomi Rapace is not quite as forceful, but she's better here than in any of her other recent English-language roles. After their collaboration in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, perhaps Oplev and Rapace have developed a shorthand that her recent directors haven't enjoyed. Terrence Howard is one-dimensional but he effectively conveys menace - all that's required from the thinly-written part. Howard's best scene is a strange one - an ominous conversation in which his words drip with portent but that ultimately proves to be inconsequential. Isabelle Huppert and F. Murray Abraham have supporting roles as Beatrice's mother and Victor's wife's uncle, respectively.

The tone and pacing of Dead Man Down have a distinctly European flavor, which may explain why American viewers, used to having background and exposition pared down and cleanly delivered, may feel adrift at the outset. As imperfect as aspects of the film are (and one has to set the "suspension of disbelief" bar pretty high - this is a New York City without any cops), it works on its own terms until it reaches the point of resolution. Still, the early months of 2013 have given us a large number of revenge flicks and this is the least conventional among them, so maybe that counts for something.

Dead Man Down (United States, 2013)

Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Cast: Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace, Terrence Howard, Dominic Cooper, Isabelle Huppert, F. Murray Abraham
Screenplay: J.H. Wyman
Cinematography: Paul Cameron
Music: Jacob Groth
U.S. Distributor: FilmDistrict
Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 2013-03-08
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity,Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1