Walking into Dead Man Down is an intriguing experience. As a fan of Niels Arden Oplev and his original The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (yes the American Fincher version is a remake; get over it), I came in curious about his first English language film. The Dane, known for his melancholic and violent work, is attempting to make the crossover to the more international mainstream market and wants to do so with the most American of violent subgenres: noir. Plus, he’s Hellbent on doing it with HIS girl.
Dead Man Down’s greatest asset is the reunion of Oplev and Noomi Rapace, the girl whose face he imprinted upon the minds of so many moviegoers. Despite being Rapace’s third American film (she appeared in Sherlock Homes: A Game of Shadows and Prometheus most recently), this marked her first English role that actually had depth beyond the set pieces. Still obviously pissed that Hollywood tried to overshadow their work, Oplev mounts a loving portrait of his leading lady in her every featured scene. He offers Rapace the opportunity to devour his frames anew with another character exhibiting personal trauma inside and out of her body. However, Rapace’s Beatrice is no Lisbeth Salander. She is a true victim haunted by past pains and searching for new ways to cope. Yet, the picture and story do not really belong to her no matter how often the camera and Oplev seem to desire simply that. This is the story of Victor (Colin Farrell) and his long journey through Hell.
At the start of the picture, Victor is one of the newer hired muscles for Mafioso Middleman Alphonse Hoyt (Terrence Howard). Alphonse is coming out of a rough couple of months after being dogged, harassed and stalked via anonymous letters, photographs and even text messages. He opens the film in a bloodbath of bullets and paranoia when he brings Victor along with the rest of his crew to his dealer’s apartment. Convinced that the underling is responsible for the maddening harassment, he turns the Jamaican tenement into a smoldering heap resembling a map from Call of Duty. Amidst all the confusion and bloodletting, Victor saves the boss’s life from a stray bullet. This endears Victor evermore to the man he so meticulously has driven to outright madness.
For initially unknown reasons, Victor is determined to force Alphonse to the edge before presumably pushing him over. Occasionally aided by a concerned and disapproving father figure, Gregor (F. Murray Abraham), Victor leads a rather empty life when he is not obsessing over how best to destroy Alphonse and nearly everyone in his employment. This deliberate procrastination has even made him sloppy, such as when he murdered one of the baddies in his own apartment. Across the street, the lonely girl with whom he flirts every evening, watches and waits. One day, after asking him out on a date, Beatrice reveals she has her own need for bloody retribution. Once a beautician, Beatrice had her world shattered when a drunk driver plowed into her vehicle a year ago. While he only had to serve three weeks in jail, she is forced to live with the marks he left on her, including the remains of the reconstructed left side of her face. It seems the psychological damage is still left unattended. She makes a deal with Victor. If he murders the man who ruined her life, she will not call the police about a murder he’s already committed. Of course, Victor could just as easily kill the sad woman, but she is likely the only person he will meet to know his pain. A pain they can now share when it threatens their mutual annihilation.
Dead Man Down works best when it wallows in that bleakness. Every character in movie film is in search of absolution and relief from being wronged. Even the smugly nasty Alphonse is lashing out at a phantom who has taken away his sense of alpha superiority. The sense of loss and anguish is cultivated by the ensemble like a fine wine. Farrell, already proving his underrated acting chops in more off-beat and interesting fare like In Bruges (2008), brings an intense unending sadness to Victor’s eyes. Suffering from an emotional wound that will not heal, Victor is the titular character who has been going on dead two years now, even if his pulse is technically still beating. Just rounding out the fifth act of The Revenger’s Tragedy when the movie starts, he seems to have nowhere to go except into the abyss. His internalized agony is nicely complimented by the equally miserable Rapace. A delicate French woman who has fallen into a darkness she cannot escape, Rapace brings a poise and resigned shyness not seen in the strong feminist roles she has become known for. Beatrice only wants to move past her own tragedy, but is unable when the boys on her block remind her daily that she is a “monster” and her roommate mother (Isabelle Huppert) constantly draws attention to the scars by trying to hide them. Dead Man Down works is at its most involving during the curiously quiet scenes between its two leads. Misery may not love company, but it savors a shared righteous fury.
However, the picture is intent first and foremost to be a crime story. Howard is excellent as the story’s underwritten heavy. Alphonse is both a clever man but annoyingly oblivious to the glaring clues of a threat within. Dominic Cooper is likewise serviceable as Darcy, a Hungarian rookie who Victor takes under his wing and sympathizes with. Yet, all these scenes of criminal duplicity and gun waving may as well be in any of your standard Guy Ritchie films. Oplev tries mightily to surmount the screenplay’s generic plotting with a tone fermented in the kind of slow boiling naturalism and cynicism one expects from a Northern European filmmaker. Indeed, despite its American setting, the overbearing gray skies and wordless dialogue imbues the thriller with a relatively unique perspective. When the perpetually rain soaked noir roads give way to streets covered in blood, Oplev also brings a visceral punch to the symphony of violence which never feels pretty or glorified.
Ultimately, Dead Man Down’s quarantined atmosphere of gloom is bogged down by a final act and resolution that feels far too safe and conventional for a group of characters who deserved more. Still, the style of emotional decay the filmmakers bring to an otherwise traditional formula can mostly make up for the screenplay’s many shortcomings. Especially when it is in relation to the sweet, sweet suffering of Farrell and Rapace. These two might be in a strong drama, even if it isn’t this movie.
Den of Geek Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars