Friday, March 8, 2013

Dead Man Down: The dish best served cold

Dead Man Down (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity and considerable violence
By Derrick Bang

As I expected, David Fincher’s American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo completely eclipsed Danish director Niels Arden Oplev’s vastly superior 2009 version in this country ... and let me note, as well, that Noomi Rapace’s Lisbeth Salander blew Rooney Mara right off the screen.

Victor (Colin Farrell) thinks that the scarred Beatrice (Noomi Rapace) merely wishes to
go on a date, to forget — for an evening — the despair that has lingered in the wake
of the car accident that left her with such a crippled self-image. In fact, though, Beatrice
has chosen Victor for a very specific reason ... as he's about to learn.
Imagine my delight, then, to see that Oplev and Rapace have reunited for the former’s American film debut, with a riveting crime thriller that offers more of the intense, claustrophobic character interactions that marked their first collaboration.

Dead Man Down also owes much of its narrative snap to a slick script from J.H. Wyman, a writer/director/producer best known for a pair of engaging TV shows: Fringe and the woefully under-appreciated Keen Eddie. Wyman has a knack for provocative concepts, and he certainly delivers that — and more — in this new film.

The setting is contemporary, the locale the seedier underbelly of any American metropolis (filming took place in Philadelphia). Dead Man Down hits the ground running, with a gaggle of hoods summoned by their boss, Alphonse (Terrence Howard). Somebody is playing a nasty game with Alphonse, sending cryptic messages that arrive on the corpses of his men.

The newest oblique missive sends Alphonse and his gang to the lair of a local drug kingpin (Andrew Stewart-Jones, vividly compelling), which prompts a confrontation that doesn’t go at all well; indeed, Alphonse survives solely due to the timely intervention of Victor (Colin Farrell).

This clash doesn’t sit well with regional boss Lon Gordon (Armand Assante), who feels that Alphonse has gotten seriously out of line. A price will need to be paid. Alphonse scarcely registers this warning, obsessed instead with what these damned notes might mean.

Victor hasn’t much of a life outside his duties as protective gunsel, although he has bonded with fellow hood Darcy (Dominic Cooper), an ambitious fellow looking to work his way up the gangland ladder. After hours, Victor eats makeshift meals in a minimally furnished, upper-level apartment in a complex that might be one scant step up from slum projects. He occasionally spots an attractive young woman on the balcony of a similar apartment in the adjacent tower.

This time, however, their eyes lock. She tentatively wiggles her fingers in an almost-wave. After a lengthy pause, he does the same.

Sadly, tragically, Beatrice (Rapace) doesn’t see herself as attractive ... at least, not any more. A ghastly traffic accident left her face badly disfigured; numerous reconstructive surgeries have helped, but not enough to prevent local children from cruelly calling her “monster.” Beatrice cannot look at herself in a mirror — cannot even think about herself — without bursting into silent, self-pitying tears.

Worse yet, she once worked as a beautician, an environment where customers are unlikely to tolerate anything less than facial perfection.

Pain radiates from this woman in waves, a keening cloud of misery that Rapace projects so well that we genuinely grieve along with her. Not even Beatrice’s vivacious mother, Valentine (Isebelle Huppert), can bring the young woman to smile.

But that pregnant exchange of waves triggers Beatrice into impulsive action; she leaves an invitation in Victor’s mailbox. He calls; they agree to meet, if only briefly. Valentine is delighted, seemingly unaware of the tension in the room; both Victor and Beatrice are so enclosed, their emotions so walled off, that uttering even single-syllable words seems painful. Whole sentences have to be dragged from their lips.

By now we know the source of Beatrice’s pain, and we assume that Victor — given his, ah, profession — simply doesn’t know how to relate to “regular” people.

Ah, but assumptions are misleading ... and that’s the seductive ingenuity of Wyman’s script. Because nothing is quite as it seems.

Farrell, at his best an intense, brooding presence, has never played a character so tightly wired (and quite a few of his previous roles have been pretty unhinged!). He’s too frequently wasted in noisy eye candy such as the recent remake of Total Recall; he needs the quietly dangerous atmosphere of a project such as this one, or In Bruges — another sensational performance — in order to more subtly radiate the barely controlled rage that, somehow, doesn’t quite extinguish the suggestion of a gentler soul lurking somewhere within.

For her part, Rapace radiates smoldering sensuality, which adds to the heartbreak of her performance here. Beatrice is a strikingly sexy woman, which her provocatively casual clothing further enhances ... but all this is more reflex than come-hither advertising. Beatrice wants so desperately to be loved by a man that she probably lays awake at night brooding about it, and yet she cannot surmount her ruined self-image; she has given up on the notion of ever again securing a “warm moment” for herself.

Wyman’s twisty plot, as it unfolds, finds plenty of excuses to throw these two people together. We sense the growing bond, but watch in agony, as neither acts upon blossoming interest. We hunger for the moment when they’ll simply rip off each other’s clothes; Oplev and his two stars toy with our expectations.

Victor lives in a dangerous world, and Oplev doesn’t shy from the casually brutal way these criminals deal with each other. The police have no presence in this part of the city; Alphonse and his crew couldn’t care less if they’re seen carrying guns ... or using them. Rival — or guardedly collegial — gangs are reduced to racial designations: the Jamaicans, the Albanians.

Howard is coldly, softly lethal as Alphonse: the epitome of a powerful man who knows he needn’t raise his voice, because he is powerful. That said, Alphonse almost seems to deflate in Gordon’s presence; Assante does wonders with his brief scene. F. Murray Abraham is equally riveting as Gregor, a man from Victor’s past, and with whom he shares some crucial secret.

On a lighter note, Huppert is vibrantly engaging as Valentine, a cheerful character whose radiant personality — all the colors of the rainbow — contrasts vividly with the withdrawn, angry grays and blacks of everybody else in this story. Valentine’s blithe candor is almost unsettling in this otherwise suffocating environment; we cringe, waiting for the moment when Victor — or somebody else — might snap at her.

Then again, she likely wouldn’t notice.

Cooper, as well, brightens the proceedings. Darcy believes that he’s destined for better things; as we see in this film’s opening scene, he now has a family to consider. Looking to impress Alphonse, Darcy sets about trying to solve the tantalizing mystery. And makes slow but certain progress.

Wyman’s story is a rich pool of moral ambiguity and uncertainty: of the often deceptive chasm that separates what we think we want, from what we’re actually able to live with. Beatrice is the character most profoundly confronted by this elusive distinction, and Rapace displays all the rage and mental anguish that accompanies Beatrice’s painful journey back toward some semblance of inner peace.

Dead Man Down doesn’t have the “gotcha” complexity of, say, The Crying Game or The Usual Suspects, but the various character dynamics are just as fascinating. This is a thoughtful, well-modulated depiction of two lonely, bereft souls who believe they’re past the point of second chances. The question, then, is whether they’re correct.

That this angst unfolds against a violent backdrop, where life can be snuffed with the ease of extinguishing a candle, merely makes things more compelling. And if Oplev and Wyman slide too much toward Hollywood artifice in their explosive conclusion, well, that’s all right; by that point, they’ve earned the right to do so.

No comments:

Post a Comment