There is a fine line between a movie that refuses to hold your hand and a movie that just plain doesn’t know how to pace or structure itself. A film that metes out information casually, in a way that seems natural to the characters and their situations is something to be treasured, a rare piece of storytelling that doesn’t insult the audience through the implementation of hackneyed, forced exposition. However, pushed too far a narrative that begins in medias res and moves forward with deliberate opacity can appear to be either inexpertly plotted or incompetently executed. Dead Man Down walks this tightrope, treading the line deftly though imperfectly, managing to create a compelling narrative that mixes heady action beats with some earnest character work.
This, of course, only becomes apparent after you decipher the various plot strands and duplicitous motives of everyone involved. The film begins with a small, personal scene between two members of a crimal organization. Darcy (Dominic Cooper) is cradling his child, musing on the importance of forging a connection to the world to his friend Victor (Colin Farrell). He’s feeling nostalgic and loving because his wife is leaving him and taking the baby with her. Victor, meanwhile, remains an inscrutable mask of passivity, watching his friend hand over his child before they rondevouz with the rest of their gang at the house of their leader, Alphonse (Terrence Howard).
It turns out that Alphonse has, for three months, been the recipient of threatening packages and messages, the most recent of which came in the form of a dead man in his freezer. The man was a member of his gang, meaning that suddenly every thug has a very personal stake in the meaning behind these letters, to the point that Darcy begins to do some snooping into the cause of his pal’s death.
Victor, meanwhile, is consumed by a very different kind of problem. His reclusive neighbor Beatrice (Noomi Rapace) has been watching him, building up the courage to ask him to dinner. Up until this point, the film has moved at a pace that can only be described as breakneck, leaving a viewer scrambling to pick up names, situations, relationships. It slows down for the moments in which Ferrell and Rapace are together, allowing their first night out to unfold in a painfully awkward and yet oddly sweet way, until the point that Beatrice finally shows her cards and let’s Victor know that his worst fears are true. She has seen something she shouldn’t have, and she’s going to use her knowledge as leverage to make him aid her in her vengeance against the man who drunkenly crashed into her car and wrecked her life.
From here on out Dead Man Down becomes an engrossing hybrid of three kinds of films – the romantic drama, the revenge yarn, and the morality tale. It’s a cocktail that could be bitter to swallow, but instead – following the scramble to orient one’s self – it goes down nice and smooth.
It all works as well as it does because of a firm commitment both from the cast, as well as from the director. Cooper, in what I imagine will be an unsung supporting role, lends Darcy an air of sweetness and good-heartedness that makes his growing peril all the more unbearable to endure. Ferrell and Rapace have a warm, difficult chemistry that sells their respective damage and yearning. They are not saccharine sweet, nor are they flinty and cold. They are wounded and struggling to find their place in the world that they feel has passed them by. The moments between them are small, intimate, and steeped in their characters’ actual interested, rather than the nebulous assumed interested of stagnant names in a screenplay.
And therein is the true power of this film. The screenplay and direction are such that nothing is leaned on too heavily, no moments are unlined as particularly important. Director Niels Arden Oplev (the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) adds flair to the action scenes, fleshing out some visceral thrills, while getting out of the way of the actors in the character beats. No one says anything more to any one than is needed at the moment. It may take multiple scenes to figure out exactly who two characters are to one another. It creates a sense of a fully lived-in world replete with existing relationships, complex social histories, and real consequences.
There is so much more to talk about in this film — from the themes of forgiveness of self and others, to the way that minor details weave together to fill in backstories never fully spoken — but to do so would require spoiling any number of twists and turns that pepper this solid, well crafted tale. The best idea is to keep yourself as much in the dark as possible, and pay close attention. With the right set of eyes, Dead Man Down could be one of the best low-key action character pieces you’ll see this year.
Dead Man Down is now in wide release.