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Non-Review Review: Dead Man Down

This is intriguing. Dead Man Down feels like a blend of a European revenge thriller with a more straight-forward American crime film. Director  Niels Arden Oplev has established his credibility with his work on the original version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, even it I am less fond of the film than most. His first America film is an interesting experiment, even if Oplev can’t quite pull it off as seamlessly as the material requires.

Dead Man Down buckles a bit under the weight of two sets of genre requirements. It is by turns quiet, withdrawn and introspective, but also loud, overwhelming and exposition-filled. These two facets of the film – feeling like the demands of a European film against an American mainstream release – seem to be at war with one another. The result is something that is more interesting than entirely satisfying.

They do make a bloody mess...

They do make a bloody mess…

There are some lovely moments here. Oplev can direct an effective action sequence, but he also frames character interactions beautifully. There are lovely early scenes where our two lead characters, living opposite one another in an apartment complex, communicate cautiously and non-verbally. Oplev wonderfully constructs these scenes so that they give a sense of both intimacy and distance, the idea that these two people who living in two towers so very tall could simultaneously be so close and so far.

Similarly, we’re treated to the rather brutal (and somewhat creepy) attempts to undermine local crime boss Alphonse. Somebody is killing those people closest to the criminal, and leaving sick clues at the scene. There’s a psychological game of cat-and-mouse afoot here, as Alphonse receives taunting notes and weird sound recordings, and little clippings that seem to fit together to form part of a family picture. What is the connection? What does the killer want? Why doesn’t he just kill Alphonse outright?

Revenge is in his sights...

Revenge is in his sights…

This hook is intriguing, and compelling, but it’s also where the film runs into its first problem. It turns out that Alphonse has a mole inside his organisation, the seemingly loyal Victor. Victor wants revenge for a past wrong, and the film immediately disregards any sense of subtle nuance. As if afraid the audience will be unable to piece together what is going on amid all those atmospheric shots and tense silences, the movie offers far too much awkward exposition to bring the audience up to speed on what exactly is happening and why.

One of Victor’s extended family even shows up, played by F. Murray Abraham. Abraham’s character seems to exist purely to articulate questions in the mind of the audience and to spell out what exactly is going on, something made quite clear through the imagery that Oplev employs. It feels like Dead Man Down doesn’t trust its audience to follow the plot, or to put together the evidence that Oplev very carefully and very meticulously offers up to the camera.

On board a sinking ship...

On board a sinking ship…

So characters seem to talk at one another, rather than to one another. For every extended dialogue-light scene that the movie frames so carefully, we get another scene full of exposition and clarification. It’s frustrating, because it means the movie can’t ever maintain a proper tone. Everything is so tense and so still… and then there’s lots more talking that exists purely to ensure that we’re all following exactly what we just saw.

That feels like a conflict between the two schools of thrillers. Oplev shoots the film like an atmospheric and introspective European thriller. However, the film struggles to meet the demands of a more populist and less niche American crime film, with lots of dialogue to ensure that nobody could possibly wind up confused by whatever happens to be going on, and what could possibly be motivating any of the characters.

It certainly has a nice keyring to it...

It certainly has a nice keyring to it…

Oplev has cast two solid lead performers in Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace, and both do good work in the lead roles. Farrell is solid as a bereaved man trying to savour his revenge because it is all that he has left, but Rapace is even better as the woman living across the way from him, a woman living with the scars of a random accident which seems to have shattered her entire life. The problem, however, is that the two don’t really have a tangible chemistry. They are each perfectly believable as two damaged individuals, but there’s never the sense of a connection between the pair.

The casting also suffers a little bit from the decision to cast non-American actors in American roles. While Farrell does a convincing enough flat American accent, things come off the rails when he’s asked to provide a brief voice-over in a Hungarian accent. However, even Dominic Cooper’s American accent is distractingly terrible. “You puht Pauhl in da freezah!” he yells at one point, in what feels like an impression of a thirties film gangster.

Al good?

Al good?

Still, there are odd moments that work quite well. There’s a lovely over-the-top sequence where Alphonse is on a stakeout and confronts his loyal lieutenant Victor. It goes on a little too long as the film tries to wring suspense from whether or not he has finally figured something out, but Terrence Howard is convincing as a mid-level operator in desperate fear for his live, philosophically ruminating on the nature of loyalty. Howard gets many of the film’s best moments, including one early conversation with with a British gangster where he corrects his slang. Apparently it should be “not cool”, rather than “not on.”

Dead Man Down isn’t really that bad. It’s just uneven and disjointed, a film that feels like two separate approaches to the same basic ideas have somehow been melded together to produce an intriguing, if unsatisfying, whole.

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