“This is kinda like an old movie, don’t you think?” asks Liza (Olivia Wilde) of Jay (Charlie Hunnam), a stranger giving her a lift in the frozen barrens of Michigan. “Two people meetin’ in a snowstorm?”
Yep, kinda. It happens that Liza, who just helped her brother Addison (Eric Bana) rob an Indian casino, is on the run after Addison shot a state trooper dead; and Jay, an Olympic boxer and ex-con, was out of jail for about two minutes before accidentally killing his crooked manager. So two semi-innocents are wanted for murder, and the natural-born killer Addison is secretly on his way to meet them at the home of Jay’s parents. That gives Deadfall enough plot contrivances and twisted, twinned destinies for any old movie, though not necessarily a good one.
(READ: Corliss’s 2003 profile of Eric Bana)
With snowy Quebec stunt-doubling for the Upper Peninsula, and a half dozen violent deaths by mid-film, Deadfall fits the genre of Northern Western, or maybe blanc noir. But it also aims to be a budding love story, between Liza and Jay, whose bland scenes put the skids on a promising serial-killer saga. We’re not protesting the bedroom friction of Hunnam’s muscled body and Wilde’s lustrous limbs, but director Stefan Ruzowitzsky’s movie lurches to life only when Addison is making mischief — when grim death gargles at you from every corner and people are being slaughtered like sheep.
The alternating of Liza’s dewy dreams and Addison’s steel sociopathy tips Deadfall‘s intent to be both a bloody crime saga and a sensitive indie film about troubled families. First-time screenwriter Zach Dean packs the picture with angry parents: Liza’s dad, from whose abuses Addison saved her; a stepfather whom Addison guns down when he sees how rotten the man is to his wife and her kids; Sheriff Marshall Becker (Treat Williams), who humiliates his daughter, the bright young deputy Hanna (Kate Mara); and Jay’s father Chet (Kris Kristofferson), if only for the grumpy estrangement a righteous man feels from his wayward son. A talented dramatist could extend any of these relationships into a solid, nuanced story; but put four of them in one film and it just looks like piling on.
With no opening credits, the main surprise for audiences is spotting the veteran performers who pop up every few minutes. Why, there’s Sissy Spacek as Kristofferson’s wife June — two actors who came to movie light 40 years ago (Spacek in Prime Cut, Kristofferson in Cisco Pike) finally in a film together. In the first act, the script has tipped the climactic Thanksgiving-dinner showdown early on, thus letting viewers guess the machinations that will bring the entire cast into Chet and June’s dining room for a killer confrontation.
Ruzowitsky won a Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2008 for The Counterfeiters, about Jewish forgers in a Nazi concentration camp. There the writer-director found cohesion in his complex narrative and sizable ensemble cast. Deadfall, though, is a thing of pieces: splendidly efficient in its action sequences (car crash, knife fight, snowmobile chase), dawdling in dialogue scenes that should smolder with tension. Few of the actors make an urgent connection with their characters or their fellow players. Bana has the stature for Addison but not the murderous intent; he doesn’t provide an X-ray, or even a snapshot, of a killer’s mind.
(READ: Richard Schickel’s review of The Counterfeiters)
There was always crackle in the old movies of which Deadfall is a pastiche. One template would be the 1941 High Sierra, in which ex-con Humphrey Bogart gets tangled in the mountains with sweet thing Ida Lupino. Liza’s showgirl costume at a snowbound restaurant evokes the spangled Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop; and Addison’s imperiled trek through the snow echoes Robert Redford‘s in the high Rockies in Jeremiah Johnson. There’s also deputy sheriff Mara, as determined to bring a killer to justice as Frances McDormand was in Fargo.
The thing is, those films lodge solidly in the memory, decades — in High Sierra‘s case, 71 years — after they opened. But in the year 2083, people are unlikely to say, of some snowscape melodrama they’ve just seen, “Hey, that’s a ripoff of Deadfall.”