Every movie begins in uncertainty, teaching the viewer how to watch it as it moves forward. Some movies have a steep learning curve, while some hedge so closely to the openness and readability that we as an audience are used to that they lead a viewer to become detached, disinterested. However, when attempting to create a more engrossing and enveloping story, a film can sometimes create so much mystery and opacity that following along becomes an act of futility. It is a risky gambit, trying to walk the line between story clarity and intriguing vagueness, but when a movie executes the balance well, it creates a surprisingly satisfying and engaging experience.
Dead Man Down, you are the rare film that begins at a level of impenetrable, inscrutable diffusion of fact and somehow manages to guide the viewer through the darkness and into the light. You begin as a story so extremely in medias res that most of the important action has already happened, or else has been happening for months. It’s a risky choice, a bold narrative move that at first confounds and frustrates, seeming to be the outgrowth of laziness or clumsy editing and direction. Then, as the story grows, as the characters begin to interact with new characters or in new situations, the threads of your plot begin to tangle, then weave, and then finally settle into a massive tapestry of betrayal, murder, revenge, and hope.
And in the end, the entirety of your theme seems to be found in that word, hope. Our main characters are damaged and violent individuals, all of them trying to carve out their own peace of mind through destruction and mayhem. As they move forward, however, new avenues open themselves to them, and it becomes their journey to either find the strength to move forward or risk a further backslide into past mistakes. All of this is masked in a naturalistically delivered story, dependent on delivering information in same manner in which one might expect it to be found in real life.
Films often use short cuts, random and clumsy exposition or flashbacks to fill in a story for the audience. You, on the other hand, depend on character moments to inform the emotion behind an act, or conversation to gradually expose the old wounds of those who had dressed and hidden them so well. Characters may go for scenes interacting with another character before their relationship is actually addressed. Actions may be viewed from one angle, without the significance to another angle of the story being explicated. All of these things create a necessary reality for our secretive and duplicitous characters to live in, but they could also have made you a film constantly muddied in shadow. And yet they did not.
It is an impressive feat, though one that is much aided by the assuredness of your writing, directing, and acting. Colin Farrell is Victor, a hired gun for a local criminal organization who serves as a kind of enforcer for Alphonse, played by Terrence Howard. Alphonse has been receiving threats for months, and when we begin he seems to have finally found the man responsible. Following a vicious gunfight, Victor goes home to his apartment, where he makes eyes with Beatrice, the withdrawn woman across the way. When she reaches out to him, it leads to a date that has all the hallmarks of a normal first date. Noomi Rapace plays the role of Beatrice as a woman who is as consumed with sadness and hopelessness as she is with anger. Her chemistry with Ferrell, who makes Victor terse and reserved, but not angrily so, is natural and infectious.
Their relationship, which only grows more complicated as it comes to light that she is blackmailing him to make him an instrument of revenge, is the heart of your film. It is the only thing which we see from genesis to fruition. Criminal plots and schemes of revenge are all already in motion, and thus it becomes clear that this isn’t a story about a coming storm of violence, but the shelter of affection and understanding that two people are slowly building to protect themselves from a world that they had already given up on.
Director Neils Arden Oplev is wise to keep the camera tricks to a minimum, while still allowing the occasional flash of showmanship to rise to the surface. His touches are brief but extreme, creating a fleeting sense of exhilaration that is then soon consumed once again by the tension of the moment. Trusting the story enough to allow everything to unfold chronologically, without resorting to expository flashbacks is another smart move, tying back into the aspects that I lauded in the first half of this review.
There are so many aspects of your story I cannot go into in firm detail, Dead Man Down. From the supporting turn by Dominic Cooper to the way in which all of the various plot threads I have left purposefully vague play out and resolve themselves. But let’s not worry about that. Let those who may discover your story on their own, and put the pieces together themselves. For now, let me just say that what I thought would be an exciting action film turned out to be a stunning little character piece, and that was a greater surprise even than all of your story’s twists and turns.
Brian J. Roan