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NEW YORK – A modern outlaw Western that brings Southern Gothic flavor to the wintry North, Deadfall is slicker and more compelling than its overdetermined script has any right to expect. Headlining Eric Bana in wryly subdued psycho mode, the sinewy genre piece builds to a bloody Thanksgiving dinner faceoff over roast goose and pumpkin pie. Magnolia might want to consider ditching the title for something less generic and positioning this as a nasty slice of holiday counter-programming.
Shot by Shane Hurlbut with an atmospheric feel for the snowbound landscapes (Quebec locations stand in for Michigan’s Upper Peninsula), the thriller is directed with a deft balance of action scenes, explosive violence and intimate character interludes by Stefan Ruzowitzy, best known for the Austrian 2008 foreign-language Oscar winner The Counterfeiters. First-time screenwriter Zach Dean elevates the story a notch above simple crime pulp by interweaving the strands of three troubled families, all with their own bruised relationships and painful histories.
The punchy opening has Addison (Bana) and his sister Liza (Olivia Wilde) speeding into an oncoming blizzard with a car full of cash from a casino heist when an accident takes out their driver and totals the vehicle. First casualty of Addison’s killing spree is the state trooper who arrives at the scene. Somewhat improbably, Addison decides they should split up on foot and try to get to Canada, tossing sis a few lingering looks that suggest the borderline-incestuous ties that bind them.
Meanwhile, in Detroit, former Olympic boxer Jay (Charlie Hunnam) is fresh out of prison and already getting into trouble in a clash with his shifty trainer. Hotfooting it out of town, he heads for the farmhouse of his caring mother June (Sissy Spacek) and unforgiving retired lawman father Chet (Kris Kristofferson). Dodging cops, he picks up Liza along the way, just as weather conditions hit whiteout. (She appears about to slip into a hypothermic coma, but her makeup is flawless.) The two fugitives spend the night at a motel, where some hot sex and a little tenderness leave conflicted Liza for the first time contemplating a life away from Addison.
Also bound to turn up at June and Chet’s dinner table is their family friend, marginalized local deputy Hanna (Kate Mara). Her hard-ass dad, Sheriff Becker (Treat Williams), who we assume has driven her mother away, treats Hanna as a girly liability on the force, shutting her out of the manhunt for the casino robbers.
Addison’s path of crime across the snowy wilderness gets a bit preposterous, but there’s an enjoyable throwback frontier-action feel in his vicious encounter with a Native American hunter, during which he loses a finger. However, it’s stretching plausibility to have him wander along at precisely the right time to witness an abusive drunkard maltreating his family in an isolated cabin. Dean employs this incident with eye-rolling obviousness to cue the ugly revelations from Addison and Liza’s Alabama upbringing that forged their unhealthy attachment. But strained as it is, the detour does yield an exciting chase sequence on snowmobiles, with more blood spilled.
Even when the writing gets clunky or takes lazy shortcuts (how did the roads get cleared so quickly after a major blizzard?), Ruzowitzky does a solid job of keeping the parallel plot strands in play. With his dark intensity and quite convincing sinister Southern drawl, Bana’s nuanced performance keeps us glued, tempering remorseless Addison’s menacing behavior with deadpan humor. A little more of that knowingness from the other actors might have given the material the edge it’s missing.
Tonally, Deadfall seems to be aiming somewhere between Sam Raimi‘s A Simple Plan and the brilliant Pine Barrens episode of The Sopranos, with a classic Western showdown at its climax. But the pedestrian writing holds it back.
It’s more than a touch schematic to have June and Chet represent exactly the kind of loving family Addison and Liza never had. But Spacek and Kristofferson bring such iconic Americana screen presences that they can dignify just about anything. Wilde looks gorgeous but struggles to graft much psychological complexity onto messed-up Liza. Hunnam does buff-and-brooding capably enough, but Williams is wasted in a one-dimensional role. Better use is made of Mara, whose quiet, observant Hanna shows resourcefulness while nursing her own wounds.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Magnolia Pictures)
Production companies: Mutual Film Company, 2929 Productions, StudioCanal
Cast: Eric Bana, Olivia Wilde, Charlie Hunnam, Kate Mara, Treat Williams, Kris Kristofferson, Sissy Spacek
Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky
Screenwriter: Zach Dean
Producers: Gary Levinsohn, Shelly Clippard, Ben Cosgrove, Todd Wagner
Executive producers: Mark Cuban, Josette Perrotta, Adam Kolbrenner, Winfried Hammacher, Olivier Courson, Ron Halpern
Director of photography: Shane Hurlbut
Production designer: Paul Denham Austerberry
Music: Marco Beltrami
Costume designer: Odette Gadoury
Editors: Arthur Tarnowski, Dan Zimmerman
No rating, 95 minutes
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