The problem with Deadfall is that it just tries too hard. It features three distinct plot strands where one would be sufficient, and four sets of characters where two would be enough. It suffers from thematic bipolar disorder, lurching from the healing power of traditional families and earnest romance all the way over to crime, murder, abuse, broken homes and more than a few implications of incest. The writing and performances aren’t really all that great either.
So, no, it’s not a good movie. I had detached all emotional investment in the film early on, but then again I was never checking wondering when it would be over. To its credit, Deadfall is not boring. Some of the visual choices and camerawork of director Stefan Ruzowitzky are genuinely creative, and at their best moments the visuals hint at the same bleak moral no-man’s lands of Fargo or No Country For Old Men.
The film also features a bang up performance by Eric Bana, who plays Addison, one half of a brother-sister crime duo that’s just knocked over a casino in the northern midwest. His sibling is Liza (Olivia Wilde) who’s in the backseat counting the cash when their car hits a deer, sending it careening off the road and killing their driver. After Addison kills a cop who stops by the wreck to investigate, he concludes the two of them would be better off if they split up, then reunite when crossing the Canadian border.
Meanwhile, a boxer named Jay (Charlie Hunnam) has just been released from prison, and reluctantly agrees to visit his parents (Sissy Spacek and Kris Kristofferson) for Thanksgiving dinner. But first he stops off in Detroit to settle up some debts with his old coach. The meeting goes badly, to put it very mildly, and Jay winds up fleeing the scene, thinking he’s seriously injured, if not killed the man. Then on the way to his parents’ house Jay comes across a half-frozen Liza on the side of the road, and gives her a ride in his truck.
Lastly, small town officer Hanna (Kate Mara) is applying to the FBI academy while trying to live up the expectations of her contemptuous father (Treat Williams), who also happens to be her boss, and the ring-leader of the boys club that populates the rest of the police station. She and the other officers are dragged into the goings-on when they’re given the job of scouring the woods for the fugitive siblings.
This last subplot is basically a disaster all around. Williams phones in his performance Mara does her best but the script gives her nothing to work with. The father’s cruelty is over the top, as is the bullying of the other officers. It’s a juvenile and pat conception of what misogyny and patriarchy look like — and also a symptom of the film’s larger and unfortunate tendency to crank everything up to eleven. Jay cannot simply be heading home from prison to reconcile with his parents, he must be fleeing a new (and obviously misunderstood) crime. When Addison stumbles upon a family in the woods, he cannot simply have an interaction. He must first save them from their own violent and gargoyle-like patriarch.
The conflict between Hanna and her father does serve up one brutal plot twist at the climax. But the filmmakers don’t take its dark logic to the obviously necessary conclusion. Other than that, the subplot serves both the audience and the film no purpose.
Jay and Liza’s story fares little better. A blizzard traps them at a motel and bar overnight, and the impromptu stay runs them through the gamut of suspicion, confusion, soul-sharing, sex, disillusionment, more soul-sharing, and finally earnest romance. And all in 24 hours! It’s a perfunctory and unconvincing development, dragged down by poor characterizations. Liza is equal parts wily temptress and wounded innocent, and the movie attempts to hide with edgy sexual dialogue what is essentially a pat story of a femme fatale with a heart of gold rescued by an earnest and good-hearted, but otherwise not terribly interesting, young man. It’s a juvenile (yes, I’m using that word a lot) and implicitly sexist take on the standard noir plot.
Which brings us to Addison and Bana’s performance, which elevates the film every time it appears on screen. Addison is by far Deadfall’s most interesting creation. A formerly poor boy from Alabama who’s made good, Bana offsets his poise and bearing with a thick southern accent wielded as a weapon — equal parts menace and charm. He does a fine job of portraying Addison’s intelligence, which sports the peculiar cunning of someone whose schooling was likely not of the formal variety. The man knows his own capacities and those of his fellows. But he’s also not quite completely in control of his own emotional weather, a problem that’s particularly acute where Liza is concerned. It’s a shame they spend only the beginning and the climax on screen together, so we’re never able to see the complexities and history of their interactions fleshed out in detail.
The two best sequences of the movie are extended dialogues Addsion has, first with the daughter of the family he comes upon in the woods, and later with Jay’s mother. In both cases Addison also has enough self-awareness to be comfortable with his own (im)moral decisions, while respecting and finding interesting individuals who have chosen differently. Spacek is also impressive, embodying a woman with enough experience and maturity to know how to reason with, soothe and size up a more powerful and violent male all at once. And when all these threads converge at Spacek and Kristofferson home, the mock Thanksgiving dinner Addison insists on having functions in a compellingly ambiguous way as both emotional self-exploration and twisted anthropology.
In the end, unfortunately, these positive moments are few and far between. There are at least two movies at war within Deadfall: One is a neo-western moral fable about the families that break and the families that don’t, while the other is a blood-soaked and sexually lascivious pulp crime thriller. Even in the most capable hands, this dichotomy would be a real trick to pull off. Unfortunately, Ruzowitzky and screenwriter Zach Dean lack the artistry and maturity to tell the first story, and they don’t have the stones to really commit to the second one. The result is a mess, displaying all the vices of both approaches and few of the virtues of either. The saving graces are some cool camerawork and one very good performance.