Big movies released early in the year have a bit of a bad reputation.
The blockbusters expected to make more money are usually held back until the summer, when audiences have more free time. Meanwhile, the movies that are expected to fare better during the awards season are nudged closer to the end of the year to be fresh in the voters’ minds.
It makes sense on both fronts, but it leaves us sifting for something digestible with offerings such as Die Hard 5 and The Last Exorcism Part II the only options at this time of year. As entertaining as watching an almost 60-year-old John McClane shoot a series of anonymous Russians for two hours can be, it’s nice that movies such as Dead Man Down can sneak in and provide some salvation.
Dead Man Down is a deliciously dark thriller, focusing on the ideas of revenge and the desire to change the past. This is Niels Arden Oplev’s first American film. Oplev, who created Sweden’s masterful Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, delivers on the same dark and mysterious notes he so effectively played in the Tattoo series. His three stars are wonderful in their journey through this darkness, and they carry the movie.
Using the old Philip Marlowe mold for film noir leading men, Colin Farrell’s Victor is a compelling and quietly dangerous leading man. His performance is intensely quiet, which, like Ryan Gosling’s in Drive two years ago, lends an uneasy danger to his character.
Farrell found a bit of a sweet spot the last few years playing manic, fast-talking characters in Horrible Bosses, Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges, three scene-stealing performances. Here, taking his performance to the other end of the spectrum, he still shines. Victor, like every other character in the film, is haunted by his past. He works as a killer for the mob while pursuing his own revenge on the side. Farrell delivers this conflict through gestures and body language. It’s very well done by a prominent yet underappreciated actor.
Now, there is the question of the villain, a role in which audiences are definitely not used to seeing Terrence Howard. Seeing Howard as a mob boss takes a little getting used to, but in hindsight it makes you wonder why he hasn’t played more villains.
Howard’s Alphonse is a smooth and calculating adversary. His hair is almost as slick as his talk, and you can tell Howard is loving this darker role. Alphonse has to deal with someone targeting his organization for something it did in the past. His paranoia at being pursued and taunted with cryptic messages is played perfectly, with his smoothness cracking into rage at just the right beats.
Finally, what noirish thriller would be complete without a mysterious and dangerous woman to accompany the hero? Noomi Rapace, Oplev’s heroine from Tattoo, plays Beatrice, a woman that comes into Victor’s life seeking her own revenge for a drunk driving accident that left her face scarred.
Victor and Beatrice’s romance is central to the movie, running parallel to the themes of revenge and redemption. Rapace’s performance is explosive next to Farrell’s slow burn, and their chemistry is obvious. Though it is hard to choose between the three stellar performances, Beatrice’s magnetic fragility sets her apart and might just be the highlight of the film.
The film has undeniable dark undertones. The characters are all damaged people and revenge is a messy business. It would have been easy to make this film very bleak, but Oblev shows that his mastery of noir undertones translates just fine from Swedish. He creates a beautiful world for his players to live in, and he takes advantage of the setting to further his aesthetic. Moments like when Beatrice and Victor wave to each other from opposite apartment building balconies are truly breathtaking. It would be difficult to call a movie that is this violent and troubled uplifting, but it is definitely hopeful. Amid their darkness and their pain, the characters find hope, and ultimately the movie is beautiful because of it.
Dead Man Down has a bit of everything. It has multiple action scenes, a compelling romance, camaraderie, comedy and large dashes of darkness. The three main actors command attention with their wonderful roles, and the setting the director creates truly captures the emotion of the story. It’s a heavy film, but not so much so, hitting a wide variety of notes before coming to a close.
In short, Dead Man Down is just the kind of movie to break audiences out of the early-year movie doldrums.