Dead Man Down (2013)
I only got turned onto the existence of this movie last week, and the trailer did blow me away. It seemed like a very visually captivating piece of art in the violent crime genre. I certainly do not feel the trailer was wholly misleading, as it does capture some of what the film has to offer, but it did give me a somewhat exaggerated expectation. Dead Man Down is indeed a very good film from the director of the original The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Niels Arden Oplev, with a slow building substance and good performances. It felt like it was giving me a different approach to the revenge film archetype focusing more on the emotional depth of those affected by these tragedies instead of delving into the clichéd Death Wish type of scenario. I do have some critiques to levy against the movie, partly due to expectations, but in general, I did find some enjoyment with Dead Man Down.
Victor (Colin Farrell), a rising gangland player, has infiltrated the crime empire run by ruthless kingpin Alphonse (Terrence Howard), with the single purpose of making Alphonse pay for destroying his once happy life. As he meticulously orchestrates his vengeance from his high-rise home, Victor watches and is watched by Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a mysterious young woman who lives in the apartment across from his. On the surface a fragile woman-child, Beatrice seethes with a rage of her own. When she uncovers Victor’s dark secrets, she threatens to expose him unless he helps her carry out her own campaign of retribution. Each fixated on avenging the past, they devise a violent and cathartic plan that could change their worlds forever.
As I said, this film focuses on its emotionally and physically scarred victims of injustice instead of shoot ‘em up action. That’s what really captivated me about the film as it went on. It does take a while for the film to get into the depth of our protagonists, but that ultimately fits with the film’s style. It slowly builds the relationship between Victor and Beatrice from a fractured need for violent retribution to something far more of the heart and soul. This slow development might not be for everyone, but I did enjoy those moments when the film arrived at them. The gradual progression paid off well, and that’s mainly due to the very good performances and the quality of the direction.
While I’ve rarely seen the potential of Colin Farrell fully realized on film, I’ve had a lot of faith in his talent, and I like seeing him in films. There are a few I do need to see where he is very charismatic and potentially wildly entertaining. In this film, we get subtlety and depth. We, firstly, see the glimpses into his character’s pain. The tragic loss he has endured is shown through in very touching moments of him watching a home movie of his family. Where the standard action revenge film has the lead essentially turning into the Punisher, this film highlights the pain within and deals with the substantive choices of the heart and mind that these actions have. What we see grow out of the relationship with Beatrice is indeed a rediscovery of humanity for him. Colin Farrell really made me feel the anguish of the love Victor forges with Beatrice. It’s genuine and touching, and it’s what makes the film worthwhile.
Noomi Rapace is equally excellent. I felt for Beatrice possibly even more than Victor. Her life has also been shattered, but she is left with the physical scars to always remind her of what she’s lost. The injustice she has faced is internally and externally crippling. The neighborhood kids assault her, insult her by calling her “monster.” Her pain evokes sympathy at every turn, and her screaming at Victor to give her revenge is something we cannot fault her for. Rapace puts in a beautiful performance of heartbreaking depth, but also, we see that heart mend along the way. She and Farrell do work very well together striking a substantive emotional chord that resonates. I was emotionally effected several times during their most painful and poignant scenes together. With the direction of Niels Arden Oplev, these scenes are given weight and prominence through fine cinematography and effective use of music.
Now, I also really like Terrence Howard as an actor. I’ve seen him in enough to really enjoy his charisma and intelligence. As Alphonse, he does carry some very good weight. It’s not a powerhouse performance, but he does get his scenes to shine in. He can be ruthless and cunning as well as a little bit intimidating. I did like what he did in this role, but I do feel there could’ve been more added to him. While we know what he has done to deserve this methodical campaign of torment and revenge, we never really see him doing anything on-screen to further that perception of a vile, cold blooded crime lord. Alphonse does still have people he answers to in the hierarchy of organized crime, but we certainly get the impression he is substantially formidable. I feel Howard’s best scene is when he meets with Victor to have him weed out the one responsible for this torment. It’s an excellently staged, shot, and acted scene that I wish went on a little longer. I felt it ended a little abruptly, but nonetheless, it is a stellar scene that I really liked.
The film also has some nice small performances by Armand Assante as Alphonse’s boss, and F. Murray Abraham as Victor’s Hungarian father-in-law. Both actors bring their best quality forward to really give some strong support to these minor but no less pertinent characters. Abraham certainly has more screentime to work with, and more emotional content to convey. All the rest of the supporting cast does a really fine job. No weak links here at all.
What action scenes there are in Dead Man Down are well done. I particularly liked the chase / escape scene after Victor’s sniper attack. It’s very well conceived and executed with stellar results. While there is handheld camera work here, the editing is relatively conservative allowing for the geography of the action to be maintained. I was never lost in these sequences. The visual grammar was very solid and flowed nicely. As always, that’s partly due to a very good editor that knows the right way to let the action play out in a coherent fashion. The rest of it is an intelligent director and a damn good director of photography in the form of Paul Cameron. He has previously worked with Michael Mann on Collateral and Tony Scott on Man on Fire. Both films had very different styles, but were both helmed by filmmakers who knew how to competently and intelligently shoot action and hefty drama. Dead Man Down is no different as it is very well shot with its own grounded style, but with special artistic touches that I found very intriguing and visually enjoyable.
The score by Jacob Groth, a regular collaborator with Oplev, is very well done accentuating the emotional strengths of the film. Generally speaking, his work here is very effective and sets the right tones at the right times. Not much really stood out, but his score was very pivotal in enhancing the moments of the film that hit my strongly on an emotional level. I think that says plenty. In the context of the movie, there’s only a single rap song, and that’s from the outset shootout sequence. Admittedly, I am not a fan of that genre of music, but it was used quite well and I enjoyed its momentary inclusion.
The story we have here is presented and executed quite well. While it did take a while to get me to a point where I connected with it, emotionally, it’s great once it does get there. We finally get into the meat of the story that’s unfolding here, and I do believe Niels Arden Oplev does quite a good job at telling that story. He never really rushes through anything. He takes the time for the weight of the characters and their actions to be absorbed by the audience. We get to understand what’s happening beneath the surface of these characters. While I was never wholly energized by the film, I was engaged by it. I do wish that the film delivered more on the artistic visual awe that I was ensnared by in the trailer, but as it is, I did generally enjoy what I experienced.
However, the main critique I have against the film is that the film really felt like it was building towards something more substantive and emotionally powerful than the climax it gave us. Simply put, without delving into spoilers, we essentially get a straight up action sequence that more than borders on your standard action revenge film climax. It’s not a badly done sequence, but it wasn’t mind blowing either. That’s the one thing the trailer really drove me towards expecting – action scenes presented in an artistic, mind blowing fashion. Something that would be visually beautiful while maintaining a graceful substance of emotion. Thus, the climax left me underwhelmed. It gives us a moment or two of substance, but aside from the initial fiery slow motion explosion, it’s generally your standard action film climax with gunfire everywhere and splashy stunts to jump start it all. It felt a little shallow for a film that had so much depth, and a tad cliché for something that seemed to give us a fresher perspective on the revenge thriller idea. I also felt that what happens to Alphonse was a little too much out of a B-grade action movie because it allowed for no emotional poignancy for the characters or story. I think the film demanded something with more dramatic weight and emotional satisfaction. Again, the climactic action sequence is well made, but from the artistic point of view, it left me wanting something more substantive.
I would buy Dead Man Down when it hits DVD. I think it has enough admirable and valuable qualities that I could enjoy watching it again. The performances are quite solid all around delving us into a realistic well of emotion. The development of the love between Victor and Beatrice is beautifully done with two excellent actors really digging down deep to pull at my heartstrings a few times. The film only has about three action scenes in it, and they are all well done. Still, it is not something to expect a lot of excitement or high charisma for. If there’s anything that does deter anyone from it, I believe it is that fact. The film deals with subtle, grounded performances with a gradual pace that does pay off, but might leave some audiences cold. You’re either going to become invested in these characters or you are not, and if not, then there’s really little else to engage your attention. Now, you may notice a peculiar WWE Studios logo attached to this film, as in the professional wrestling company. I really believe that’s only there because one of their wrestlers, Wade Barrett, has a very minor role as a mafia henchman. He has maybe three or four lines in the whole movie, and is mostly background muscle in a suit. WWE Studios likely had next to no creative input on this film as it’s certainly far above their low grade, cheap schlock standards. Don’t let that peculiar logo at the start of the film throw you off. Dead Man Down is mostly very good, but overall, it’s just pretty good. Regardless of my trailer induced expectations, it does have a few shortcomings with the climax and the lack of a particular emotional veracity, but if any of what I’ve conveyed to you is to your tastes, I feel the movie is worth checking out in one form or another with the right set of expectations.