Recently noir has seemed marginalized, almost antiquated, in its application of dark tones that point to a suspenseful end. “Deadfall,” an understated, slow-burn thriller, doesn’t reinvigorate those rules but illustrates their lasting value. Director Stefan Ruzowitzky (“The Counterfeiters”) takes an inoffensively straightforward approach to first-timer Zach Dean’s old-fashioned screenplay, turning its blunt character types and derivative scenarios into enjoyable pulp fodder.
Set in a frosty Canadian border town on the eve of Thanksgiving, “Deadfall” features an icy landscape littered with crime to an implausible degree, but it gets a pass for its unabashed commitment to formula. Things have gone wrong before the credits even roll, with grown siblings Addison (Eric Bana) and Liza (Olivia Wilde) speeding down the snowy road on the lam from a heist; when the car suddenly flips, Addison mows down a passing cop and the duo continue their race to nowhere through the frozen woods.
Meanwhile, a completely unrelated crime is committed in the city, where former boxer Jay (Charlie Hunnam) has been released from jail after doing time for a fixed fight. Seeking revenge against an ex-colleague who set him up, Jay accidentally injures the man and also finds himself on the lam — in this case, the same Canadian border town, where his family lives and expects him for Thanksgiving.
Naturally, the two incidents must clash. Back in the woods, Addison and Liza decide to split up, and a hitchhiking Liza manages to land a ride with none other than a panicky Jay. Initially intent on seducing Jay for her own needs, Liza very quickly falls for his brooding demeanor. The serendipity of this connection is never fully addressed, but it’s not really a distraction; the movie churns along with enough atmospheric confidence and character depth to circumvent nitpicking.
The pacing of “Deadfall” cleanly cuts a path toward a final confrontation where everyone neatly winds up in the same place. However, its cast brings enough conviction to the material to sustain the clichés. Rounding out the ensemble, Sissy Spacek credibly embodies Jay’s hardened mother, while Kris Kristofferson barks pejoratives at his police officer daughter (Kate Mara). In the primary villain role, Bana adopts a flimsy southern accent, but otherwise manages to make his borderline maniac character unsuspectingly sympathetic. His impressive turn is match only by Wilde, as she skirts a line between schemer and romantic right up until the last scene.
A world away from director Ruzowitzky’s Oscar-winning Holocaust drama “The Counterfeiters,” this never aims for more than basic engagement, littering the plot with numerous vignettes (a knife fight between Bana in the woods, the relationship he forges with a young girl after overtaking her cabin from her alcoholic father) instead of a single plot thread to hold it all together.
The action showdowns lead to less satisfying results, but the climax — where virtually every strand collides over the course of a Thanksgiving dinner — stands out because it eschews endless gunfire for tense conversation. Those final scenes turn “Deadfall” into a bonafide family drama, proof that the noir has humanistic roots. It left me feeling thankful for persistent movie traditions.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Magnolia Pictures will release “Deadfall” later this year. Not eventful enough to generate much attention in theaters, it has enough star power and action appeal to perform well on VOD.