Directed by: Niels Arden Oplev
The thing that you need to understand about Niels Arden Oplev’s neo-noir crime thriller is that in spite that it takes place in New York City, it is not actually an American film. That is to say, the pacing, temperament, style and direction of the film all point to the fact that it is, in fact, European in nature. For his part, Oplev (the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) eschews the high-octane, quick-cutting, rapid-fire filmmaking of American directors and has chosen instead to deliberately pace his story in such a way that theatergoers are actually forced to sit back and wait for stuff to happen. Unfortunately, many modern-day film-goers feels that this sort of storytelling violates their right to check their brain at the door and have the entirety of the film simply wash over them as the gobble down their popcorn, candy, and 32 oz. sugar-fueled, carbonated drinks.
To (mis)quote Crocodile Dundee “That’s not a film, this is a film.”
With Dead Man Down, Oplev makes his American theatrical debut with a compelling action thriller wherein a pair of mismatched strangers is irresistibly drawn to one another by their mutual desire for revenge. At first blush, Victor (Farrell) is a thug working for a local crime lord named Alphonse (Howard) who has been, for the past three months, been the victim of mind-games being played on him. Someone has been sending Alphonse cryptic messages along with pieces of a photograph that has been cut up.
Alphonse thinks it is a drug dealer with whom he does business, and — after one of his crew winds up dead and stuffed in Alphonse’s meat freezer, Alphonse determines to take action. So he, along with his team, raids the place, killing everyone inside. Back at his high-rise apartment, Victor exchanges long lingering looks with a woman, Beatrice (Rapace), from across the way. At first we think that they are cautiously flirting. Beatrice is recovering from a horrible auto accident where she was rammed by a drunk driver, and her face is extensively scared. When the two finally do meet we realize that Beatrice has other things on her mind than romance.
Apparently she witnessed Victor kill a man in his apartment (Alphonse’s friend) and now wants Victor to kill the drunk (who only received three weeks in jail) who ruined her features, or she’ll turn him over to the cops. Even though Victor agrees, it turns out that he has an even deeper secret that he is keeping. It turns out that Victor has been stalking Alphonse for nearly two years in order to extract his own revenge on Alphonse — who ordered the death of Victor’s wife and daughter.
No, this is not an easy tale to tell, nor is it all laid out on the screen all at once. Oplev forces his audience to work for the story, to become involved in what is occurring in their lives, and care about them as individuals, not as mere ciphers running around on the screen — the modern-day equivalent of bread and circuses. Victor for his part must worm his way into the den of the devil and wrestle mightily with the course of action on which he has set himself, as well as the profound consequences that will grow out of it. (At one point he yells at Beatrice that she doesn’t understand what it is like to kill a man.)
Ultimately, both Victor and must Beatrice follow Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s arc and walk the path of the hero, effecting a fundamental change by the film’s conclusion, something that is ever so rare in these days of three-picture deals where the main character has to start the next film exactly the same way they ended the last one. Well, if you want to see this film, you are going to have to hurry, as it is (unfortunately) about to get pulled and dumped to DVD — where you will actually be able to better able to enjoy it anyway.
Robert J. Sodaro has been reviewing films for some 30 years. During that time, his movie reviews and articles have appeared in numerous print publications, as well as on the web. Subscribe to receive regular articles and movie reviews.