I have a hunch that Niels Arden Oplev’s Dead Man Down would be getting a much healthier critical reception if it had been a product of his native Europe. This is less due to our nation’s occasional collective sense of cultural inferiority, than the general feeling that Oplev’s move to America has lost something in translation. What are originally personal and native quirks become awkward or absurd when brought to the States (Paul Verhoeven is Exhibit A), and there’s a laundry list of European and Asian directors who have been relegated to making junk once they arrive in the U.S. That being said, it’s these oddities that make Oplev’s film interesting, despite the fact the quirks are what ultimately cause it to fall apart.
Dead Man Down sports a Gordian knot of a plot, centering on Victor (Colin Farrell), a gangster who gets caught murdering another mobster by his neighbor Beatrice (Noomi Rapace). Beatrice — who was disfigured by a drunk driver in a car accident — uses this information to blackmail Victor into murdering the man she feels ruined her life. What she doesn’t know is that Victor is no mere cold-blooded killer. In actuality, he’s a Hungarian immigrant out for vengeance of his own by infiltrating a gang led by a man named Alphonse (Terrence Howard), who’s responsible for the death of Victor’s wife and child.
It’s all quite convoluted and structured in a way that’s both economical and a bit confusing, at least until the plot begins to unravel. Oplev brings a distinctly European flavor to the film, with its multiethnic cast of characters, its costuming (I’m not sure why Dominic Cooper is dressed like a Eurotrash Justin Bieber) and its decidedly dour tone. But this downbeat nature eventually blooms into a film about love and the dangers of revenge. Oplev combines the two well enough despite occasional forays into heavy-handed messages that make sure you never miss his point.
This, however, is a minor quibble when you get down to the film’s major faults, which almost exclusively revolve around the character of Beatrice. First, there’s her whole obsession for revenge, something that stops adding up after she takes a liking to Victor. At this point, there’s an attempt to turn her into a sympathetic character, which doesn’t add up since she’s extorting Victor — even after she knows all of his secrets — to kill a man in cold blood. (You could make a case that she’s mentally ill due to her accident, but this is never explored within the movie.) Then there’s the matter of her disfigurement, which, while unfortunate, doesn’t seem garish enough to warrant all the trouble she puts into revenge (she’s no Winslow Leach), let alone having local teens carve “monster” into her front door and throw rocks at her. There’s a sense that Dead Man Down really — in its heart of hearts — yearns to be overheated trash. The scene where she’s attacked by neighborhood kids, for instance, is exceptionally overwrought: She’s hit in the head by a rock, her forehead gushing an absurd amount of blood, all while Beatrice never thinks to clean herself up. The climax, too, is far too big for what’s been paved before it, and there’s the constant sense that Oplev wants to go the full De Palma route, but never quite has the guts. Due to this, Dead Man Down is a subtly quirky movie that isn’t cohesive, and is never more than a solid, if odd, revenge flick. Rated R for violence, language throughout and a scene of sexuality.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beaucatcher Cinema 7