Niels Arden Oplev received near unanimous raves for his original take on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo so it makes sense that his first film in English would be a complicated tale of vengeance. Dead Man Down, written by Fringe’s J.H. Wyman focuses on Viktor, right-hand man of crime boss Alphonse and Beatrice, the scarred victim of a drunk driver who lives with her nearly deaf mother. Viktor and Beatrice’s is the central relationship and a most unorthodox courtship.
We first see Viktor (Colin Farrell) accompanying Alphonse (Terrence Howard) on a raid of Jamaican drug smugglers. It seems that Alphonse has had one of Alphonse’s lieutenants, Pauley, killed and stuffed in a freezer. During and immediately after the raid, we learn that Viktor has become good friends with another of Alphonse’s men, Darcy (Dominic Cooper), and watch as he and Beatrice (Noomi Rapace) share shy glances and awkward waves from their facing apartments in neighboring buildings.
We also see that Alphonse has been receiving envelopes with photos of himself with the eyes scratched out – and that he believed these letters, along with the death of the unfortunate Pauley had been the fault of the ambitious Jamaican we met earlier – an idea negated during a lunch meeting between Alphonse and a sleepy-eyed, lethal gent named Lon Gordon (Armand Assante), where he received a note that undercuts the ‘proof’ he had of the Jamaican’s duplicity.
By now, we’ve also learned that Viktor is behind Alphonse’s terrorization – and why. And it’s a very good reason. At the same time, we’ve learned why Beatrice has shown an interest in her neighbor – which comes back to why Viktor has been terrorizing Alphonse in an indirect way. His actions lead her to blackmail him to kill the man who ruined not just her face, but her life – she was a beautician before the accident and now despite the scarring on her face not seeming too awful, the damage is so deep that she cannot even smile without it hurting.
At first, as with Viktor’s seeming allegiance to Alphonse, Darcy seems like just another guy in Alphonse’s mob, but he’s much brighter than we – or anyone – might expect and seems likely to track down Pauley’s killer.
So, like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Dead Man Down is a dark, twisty tale vengeance. Wyman, however, is no Steig Larsson, so the script doesn’t quite have the same character depth, or edge. As a result, Oplev has a bit less to work with. Still, the result is fascinating.
Oplev uses a similar palette to Girl, minus the snow – greys, blacks, greens, dark blues – with the result that there is a certain wintery sensibility to the proceedings even though it’s set in warmer weather. Oplev keeps the pace at just a hair above deliberate until the final shootout – a confrontation that was never in Viktor’s plans, but may necessary by his unexpected feelings for Beatrice. Even so, the finale seems like it might have been grafted on from a slightly different movie (which may actually be Wyman and Oplev’s design here – that possibility can’t be discounted).
Farrell and Rapace have adequate enough chemistry, but the focus is more on how their characters are driven by their rage and loss – and desperation, as they unwillingly begin to find something in each other that, maybe, they were sure they’d lost forever.
Howard makes a gregariously lethal bad guy. He’s a powder keg, but one that explodes in its own time – when it’s ready. Unfortunately, he can be led by one cleverer than himself, hence the misunderstanding that opens the film.
Cooper’s Darcy is a good guy in a bad racket. He wants to get ahead because he’s got a wife and daughter. His friendship with Viktor may have begun under Viktor’s false pretences, but it has become real and, like most everything else in the film, complicated.
Beatrice is a damaged flower. Plagued by a group of kids who call her ‘Monster’ (one of whom seems to have scratched the word into her door), she only really comes to life when she’s with her mother, Valentine (Isabelle Huppert) – though Viktor is definitely having a similar effect on her as the film progresses. Rapace gets her delicacy, but also her rage and determination. When it comes down to it, she’s smart enough, and brave enough, to act to save her life.
Huppert steals every scene she’s in, breathing life into every moment – though her deafness is seemingly intermittent (unless her peripheral vision is good enough to read lips from off to the side).
Dead Man Down is definitely ambitiously told but it’s definitely a bit too complex for its story and the finale is somewhat at odds with the rest of the film. However, it’s very skilfully done and the likability of the main cast is enough to keep it from sagging under the weight of its complexity.
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