“Deadfall” starts off strong enough – three criminals, led by Addison (Eric Bana) and his sexy sister Liza (Olivia Wilde) speed away from some unspecified job (it’s later revealed to be a casino heist). It’s icy out and their driver (the only black character in the whole movie) overcompensates, avoiding a deer, which sends their vehicle cartwheeling over a snowy embankment. As Addison and Liza climb out of the wrecked car they notice their very-dead driver, his head through the windshield. “He should have been wearing his safety belt,” Bana grumbles, dripping a syrupy Southern accent on top of his natural Australian drawl. It’s a perfect way to begin the movie – darkly comic, oddly thrilling, weirdly sexual (there’s definitely an incestuous vibe between the siblings) – but these opening moments are probably the strongest in the movie’s 94 minute running time. The rest of “Deadfall” is an arctic mess, a disjointed screenplay which hinges almost entirely on coincidence and iffy plot contrivances, filled out with wafer-thin characterization, and atonal dialogue. Given the option, freezing to death might be the more desirable choice.
After that initial car crash, Addison sends his sister on her way to hitchhike, while he heads off into the woods (after graphically shooting a police officer). We abruptly switch gears to follow Jay (Charlie Hunnam, giving off the feeling that Sam Worthington and Channing Tatum were too busy or expensive), who is just getting released from prison. Jay is a boxer, seemingly because crime stories always have characters who are boxers, and was sent to prison after fixing one of his boxing matches. He returns to the gym where he trained (and where his former trainer owes him money), getting into a heated argument with a former coach that leaves the man lying on the office floor out cold, and possibly dead. Jay, believing he’s killed this man, heads off, ostensibly to his parents’ house (the movie takes place over Thanksgiving) but really in a half-hearted attempt to flee the law.
What anything involving Jay’s story has to do with the rest of “Deadfall” remains a mystery, even after having seen it. The “killing his coach” subplot in particular makes no sense, especially since later in the movie, another character clumsily relays the information that he just knocked the coach unconscious. He is fleeing imprisonment even though no one is after him, and he didn’t really do anything wrong except defend himself. That entire section of the movie has frostbite.
Anyway, the plot is now divided – half the time we’re watching Bana weasel his way through the woods in a kind of picaresque, terribly violent odyssey, sometimes killing people, other times dispensing with his homespun wisdom (his accent is pretty good); the other half we’re watching Liza, who gets picked up by none other than Jay and in short order is showing her breasts because this is an “arty” movie and not “TRON Legacy.” (Their storyline is often little more than a darkly-hued romantic comedy and just as trite.) There are two more threads that we keep track of, although somewhat more loosely – Jay’s parents (played, without much dignity, by Kris Kristofferson and Sissy Spacek) are preparing for Jay’s return on Thanksgiving, mostly by resenting each other; and a young sheriff’s deputy (played by the “other” Mara, Kate) tries to prove herself to her sexist, overbearing father, who happens to be the sheriff and her boss (Treat Williams – always good to see you, Treat!)
“Deadfall,” written by Zach Dean (you can feel the smirk on his face as he wrote this, so enamored with his own cleverness) and directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky (the Academy Award-winning director of the 2007 Best Foreign Language Film “The Counterfeiters“), is clumsy and tonally uneven. The movie veers wildly from the borderline cuddly-romantic subplot (again: much cuddlier without the incestuous subplot) to some really harsh stuff with Bana (his first encounter is with a Native American who leaves him with one less finger) back to some coming of age material with Mara. It’s wildly divergent and not all that interesting to watch; since each section doesn’t stick with a specific tone, it all just bleeds together like slushy day-after-a-storm snow. (By the way, the blizzard that is such a big deal in the movie’s first act is glossed over entirely after that. Maybe they were tired of making us watch cheesily animated CGI snow, but you’ve never seen a storm get cleaned up so quickly, especially because we never see a snow plow.) The film finally starts to show a little personality in the third act, during which Bana holds the rest of the characters hostage at Thanksgiving, elevating his character to a kind of scenery-chomping Bond villain. But it’s too little too late, first because you realize, once this section of the movie starts, that this concept should have been the entire movie, and also because we’ve already been forced to struggle through an hour or so of completely atrocious dialogue, unconvincing performances, and a screenplay fortified by the dramaturgical hallmarks of coincidence and happenstance, to really care at all if the movie takes a slight uptick in quality.
Watching “Deadfall” really is like being trapped in a blizzard – the cinematography is so muddy you can barely make out what’s going on on screen (besides the bright splashes of blood) – you’re antsy to be anywhere else but where you are. While Bana’s performance is committed and sometimes sharply funny, acting to thaw the frozen script (most of the movie you’re laughing at other people’s dialogue because it’s so damn awful), you get the sense that he’s the only actor who knew what kind of movie he was in. Everyone else, from the filmmakers to the rest of the cast, was taking “Deadfall” deathly seriously, which was a huge mistake. Brrrrr. [D]