Director : Stefan Ruzowitzky
Screenplay : Zach Dean
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Eric Bana (Addison), Olivia Wilde (Liza), Charlie Hunnam (Jay), Sissy Spacek (June), Kris Kristofferson (Chet), Kate Mara (Hanna), Treat Williams (Becker), Alain Goulem (Bobby), Allison Graham (Mandy)
Oedipal crises abound in Deadfall, a sleek but empty slice of snow-driven neo-noir that marks the U.S. feature debut of Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky (The Counterfeiters). Penned by first-time scipter Zach Dean, the purposefully lean story takes place over a 24-hour period in the frigid forest wilderness of northern Michigan, where brother and sister Addison (Eric Bana) and Liza (Olivia Wilde) are trying to make their way to the Canadian border after an ill-fated car wreck upends their escape from a successful casino robbery. The incestuous overtones and undertones between Addison, who is grim and protective, and Liza, who is both innocent and sexually charged, is the most perverse of the film’s numerous portraits of familial dysfunction, but hardly the last.
When Addison and Liza decide to temporarily part ways, she ends up hitching a ride with Jay (Charlie Hunnam), a former boxer and Olympic silver medalist who is also on the run after having possibly beaten to death the shady promoter who tricked him into throwing a fight that landed him in prison. Charlie is a gloomy palooka, a betrayed golden boy who is now an outcast from his own family, whose disapproving former lawman paterfamilias (Kris Kristofferson) refuses to forgive his son’s transgressions while his touchy-feely mom (Sissy Spacek) tries and fails to make peace. This father-son tension finds an analogy in the strained relationship between Hanna (Kate Mara), a local police officer who dreams of becoming the next Clarice Starling by being accepted to the FBI Academy, and her father (Treat Williams), the misogynist chief of police who refuses to recognize the legitimacy of his daughter’s place on the force.
The film’s structure is built around the divergence and eventual convergence of Addison and Liza, who pursue escape by wholly different means, yet are fated to reunite by the end. Plying her feminine wiles in true femme fatale fashion, Liza tries to manipulate Jay into helping her to Canada, only to end up falling in love with him (and him with her) after a heavy-breathing tryst on a motel room floor. Meanwhile, Addison goes on what can only be described as a killing spree, which is pretty impressive given that he’s slogging through a generally unpopulated landscape in the dead of winter. He knocks off a random stranger for his snow mobile, but not before losing a finger to the man’s knife, and later kills an abusive stepfather, who serves as yet another of the film’s illustrations of how families can go bad. It turns out that Addison has personal reasons for knocking off men who abuse children and their wives, as his own history is fraught with such occurrences and provides the film’s sub-Freudian explanation for all the hot and bothered looks he and Liza exchange throughout the film.
The climax takes place in the dining room of Jay’s parents, where virtually every character in the film conveniently winds up on Thanksgiving, thus allowing the film to create a vicious parody of Thanksgiving dinner, that most American of family institutions. Ruzowitzky directs with considerable skill, giving the film a dark, intense sense of purpose that keeps us constantly on edge, although Dean’s script is saddled with too many contrivances and coincidences (in almost direct contrast to the openness and emptiness of the wintry landscape, everyone who crosses the screen is somehow connected to someone else). The characters don’t always make sense, either. At times, Addison feels like a desperate man whose violent actions are born of vicious necessity (when he guns down a state trooper in cold blood, he actually bothers to say, “I hope you can forgive me”), while later in the film he becomes a simple sadist, relishing the perverse patriarchal power he wields over the Thanksgiving dinner table, pitting family members against each other and rubbing Jay’s nose in his obvious sexual connection with Liza.
Thus, even though Deadfall has some individual setpieces of real merit (particularly the staging of the lonesome car wreck that sets the plot in motion), it all too often feels like an assemblage of bits and pieces from better movies that never quite add up. The sour taste it leaves in our mouth isn’t so much from its twisted depictions of familial breakdown, but rather from the way those depictions feel so disconnected from anything substantial. Its shocks are ultimately empty threats.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Magnolia Pictures