Dead Man Down examines revenge and what it costs. As you might expect, we’re led to believe that it’s not really worth it as the characters seeking revenge won’t be healed or at peace even if and when they do achieve their goals. You might expect this because other movies have taught us that achieving vengeance doesn’t actually resolve the internal conflict, pain, and dissonance within the characters (Memento, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Star Trek: First Contact to name just a few). Colin Farrell plays a character driven entirely by thoughts of exacting revenge for his wife and daughter from the criminals who murdered them. Noomi Rapace plays a woman that has been horribly disfigured by a car accident suffered at the hands of a drunk driver and wants to make said drunk driver pay. Farrell and Rapace just so happen to live in apartments right across from each other. Hey! I wonder if they’ll meet or something.
They totally do! They do meet. Cue movie.
Rapace has seen Farrell do something bad and uses this to blackmail him into killing the drunk driver that hit her. The rest of the plot is concerned with Farrell dealing with this demand while still setting his intricate plan in motion. This aspect of the film is fairly boring - one dimensional criminals, trite dialogue, mob cliches... At times it feels like you’re watching a very poor studio’s version of The Departed. Independent from the plot, however, is the budding relationship between Farrell and Rapace. Both actors do a surprising amount of good acting in their roles. About two thirds of the way through the movie you find yourself rooting for their romance, despite the fact you’re painfully aware that this is how you’re supposed to feel; none of the writing is very subtle and most of the scenes - not even plot points, just things people say and do - are very predictable. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like feeling like I’m being coaxed into an emotion during a movie; I want it to feel more organic than that.
In any case, it’s a good thing Farrell is able to convey a lot of emotion through his Stressed Out Puppy Dog Face because he doesn’t get a lot of meaningful dialogue. Most of the time he remains silent, either not sure of what to say or deliberately not saying what he’s thinking, depending on the situation. His character frustrates because the film seems to imply that he has second thoughts about killing, that the act of taking another person’s life is hard for him. Yet he kills a bunch of bad guys throughout the movie, some very brutally. Despite this, though, his character is designed to evoke as much sympathy as possible; there are constant reminders that he’s doing this for his dead wife and child, you guys, his revenge is totally honorable. His elderly Hungarian mentor helps him and just worries about Farrell destroying himself in the process of killing his family’s murderers. At no point does he express any qualms about Farrell’s plan to murder dozens of people.
The inconsistency of how the movie expects us to feel about death and the motives for killing any one person is its biggest flaw and the main obstacle in the movie living up to its fantastic trailer. Dead Man Down (directed by Niels Arden Oplev) expects us to join Farrell in the moral outrage at his wife and daughter being killed by thugs, but to just accept that his killing several dozen people is an appropriate response. Rapace’s character has her life severely traumatized by a drunk driver and then wants Farrell to kill the man because the justice system didn’t punish him severely enough in Rapace’s eyes. Even the movie seems to find this somewhat unreasonable - Rapace comes off as sort of a crazy person when she first brings up her plan - but then (spoilers) when Farrell goes to kill the man, it prefaces Farrell’s act with the man stumbling out of a bar, drunk, making unwelcome advances toward some woman, and then looking for and dropping his keys as he moves toward his car, clearly about to drive drunk again. Rather than make us ponder the morality of what’s going on - one man killing another in cold blood after extensive planning - Dead Man Down gives us an out, saying “No look, he’s really a scumbag jerk, look how shitty this guy is. Do you really care if the protagonist kills him now?”
Playing nice with the audience in this fashion undercuts any serious message the film might have, which is important when the dialogue and plot come across as trite and same-y in so many places. It’s even more frustrating because there are genuinely funny parts to the movie and Rapace’s mother (played by Isabelle Huppert, whom you may recall from Amour) is fantastic in every scene.
If you like Farrell or Rapace a lot, you will probably enjoy this movie. If not, you better have an abiding love for generic Eastern European bad guys and revenge plots or you’re going to feel like the guy Farrell ties up and tortures for several weeks, because, you know, totally justified. Wait...
"Dead Man Down" opens March 8, 2013 and is rated R. Action. Directed by Niels Arden Oplev. Written by J.H. Wyman. Starring Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace, Terrence Howard.