Noirish story of revenge is not your typical mob thriller
Mixing the aesthetics of European cinema with the Sturm und Drang of Hollywood actioners, Dead Man Down is a surprisingly compelling take on your typical multiplex thriller.
High up one side of a concrete canyon in decaying Manhattan, a lonely urban dweller waves tentatively to her mysterious neighbor across the way. The return wave is equally tentative. Both have their damage, physical and psychological. Beatrice (Noomi Rapace) is a shattered young woman, her face a livid jigsaw puzzle and her dreams a fading echo. Her optimism has been crushed by a justice system that allowed the drunken-driving judge who destroyed her face to skate.
By this time, we’ve already seen her neighbor, Victor (Colin Farrell), in action during the cold opening in which all sorts of hell was unleashed by the Hungarian and his gangster cronies. Victor is a lieutenant for a crime syndicate that is being targeted by someone on a very personal vendetta. (Hmm … who could be behind the cryptic Post-it notes left on the corpses of his colleagues?)
Of course, this being a Hollywood shoot-’em-up thriller, it’s not exactly a surprise who’s gunning for Victor’s boss (Terrence Howard). The surprise is how tenderly director Niels Arden Oplev (of the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) bucks the Hollywood template and focuses more on the cautious courtship between Victor and Beatrice. Both are shattered people, their facades held together by the glue of becoming partners in revenge.
For those who want two hours of bullets, blood and extended CGI spectacle, this might be frustrating. Dead Man Down most assuredly delivers the goods with bursts of stylish mayhem and sweaty machismo, but here the mayhem serves the narrative, not the other way around. But Oplev also takes care to create vulnerability between his two leads, emphasized with an undertow of dread. One definitely gets the vibe that The City demands a blood sacrifice, and hope makes for a tasty entrée. But while Oplev’s portrait of Manhattan is not the postcard we’re accustomed to, he still manages to evoke the mystique.
While there are no amazing twists to be found here and the narrative is only a step above fundamental, there is still some unexpected subtext at work as well as the slow-burn pleasure of watching the director unpeel the layers of character motivation like an onion. Rapace is unafraid to have her beauty painted over in a patchwork quilt of scar tissue and play Frankenstein to the neighborhood bullies, and Farrell delivers with his brooding shtick, but reinforced here with a definite air of determined hopelessness.
Granted, the climax takes a sudden detour into Hollywood absurdity, but by that point it’s a little too late in the game to derail the positives.