Sometimes a really interesting central relationship is enough to elevate a pretty generic gangster movie, and DEAD MAN DOWN is a pretty generic gangster movie. Having a good director and a strong lead pair of actors on board doesn’t hurt matters either.
The plot follows Victor (Colin Farrell), a Ukrainian mob thug who crosses paths with Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a brutalised woman who needs help to exact revenge on her behalf, while a long-standing score of his own that needs settling is never far from his mind. The two strike up an unlikely connection as they both come to terms with who they were, and who they are, and who they will become.
From a run-of-the-mill opening shootout involving Victor protecting his boss (a miscast Terrance Howard) from a rival gang, we transition to a low-key, charming and honest first date between two remarkable strangers. Victor and Beatrice, despite living in opposite apartments, have never met, and never realised how much they have in common. Both are immigrants, both are used to the rough side of life, both are victims of recent trauma, both are trying to better themselves and move on with their lives. Following this gentle introduction, the story then takes a much darker turn, becoming an almost Hitchcockian morally twisting tale of them fixing each other’s lives.
Not every actress would be prepared to wear scars in service of her character’s back-story, but Noomi Rapace is clever and committed enough to embrace the unconventional to make her appearances in films memorable, and has never shied away from physical transformations that embellish her performances. I’ve also always liked Colin Farrell as an actor. Yes, he’s made some real turkeys in his time, but hasn’t every prolific talent in Hollywood? No matter who he plays, no matter how tough they appear on the outside, he always imbues his characters with something else, a fragility, a well-disguised vulnerability that make them compelling.
There’s an interesting parallel between Farrell and Rapace’s characters too – Victor’s unremarkable appearance disguises the monstrous crimes he has committed deep within, whereas Beatrice is inherently a good person who is just trying to maintain a normal life, but looks more sinister (cruelly branded “monster” because of her scars by her neighbours) on the surface. The way that they both want to escape their past in different ways also makes for a fascinating watch, with Farrell’s character burying the life he is forced to forget with yet more unsavory activities, and Rapace’s character seeing him as a usefully violent guardian angel, the only means to the end of her constant physical and emotional torment.
The film has some pleasingly layered moments of character examination. There’s a scene where Victor and Beatrice have essentially drawn up a contract, agreed to their mutual relief of their suffering, and Beatrice’s mother (Isabelle Huppert), upon seeing Victor making a connection with her beloved daughter, feels compelled to dig out the family photos, asking “wasn’t she pretty?” as if her scarred daughter wasn’t present, before clawing her daughter’s hair to obscure her face, in an effort to make Victor (clearly quite shocked and uncomfortable) stay. Beatrice’s mother isn’t cruel here, just a little tactless, doing what she thinks her daughter wants (disguising her flaws) and plainly doesn’t see the offense she is causing to everyone in the room. As soon as her mother leaves the room, Rapace has Beatrice proudly sweeps her hair back again to reveal her scars once more to Victor.
Farrell has to communicate a lot with few words, and Victor becomes steadily more compelling as layers of his backstory are revealed to almost justify his deplorable actions. Sadly, the rest of the characters in Victor’s mob are a disappointing mix of stereotyped Eastern European heavies and people who don’t really convince (not for a moment did I buy that Terrance Howard or Dominic Cooper were killers).
There’s some beautiful shot composition in the interior scenes, with conversations over cafe and kitchen tables playing out like a stage play, enclosing and emphasising the emotions behind the words. Director Niels Arden Oplev has a knack for these scenes, and clearly works well with Rapace in bringing them to life. He also clearly enjoys working on the quieter moments more than the bombastic ones in his films.
It does, admittedly, become a little hard to follow who’s working for who and what everyone’s agenda is as the story goes on, but the energy and momentum rarely ceases. I can’t deny the finale becomes a big old bag of cliches either, but at least there’s a great massively destructive action scene to focus on.
Dead Man Down isn’t a patch on Oplev’s previous directorial effort, but then again THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO was something quite special. It’s as slick and good-looking as the preceding Swedish thriller, and has some compelling character beats, but the generic screenplay is disheartening, and the casting, with the exception of Farrell and Rapace, leaves a lot to be desired. I can’t tell whether I’ll still be thinking about Dead Man Down as the years go on, but it’s interesting and unusual enough to bare a re-watch, and promises much for Oplev’s directorial career. SSP