Friday, March 8, 2013

Murky plot sinks 'Dead Man Down'

A disappointing thriller from a strong collection of talent.
If you're interested in movies, Dead Man Down seems difficult to ignore. The movie marks the U.S. debut of Danish director Niels Arden Oplev, who directed the Swedish edition of the enormously popular The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. On top of that, the movie stars Noomi Rapace, the gifted actress who worked with Oplev to create the pivotal (and unforgettable) character of Lizbeth Salander in the original Dragon Tattoo series.

The rest of the movie's cast -- Colin Farrell, Terrence Howard, Isabelle Huppert, F. Murray Abraham and, very briefly, Armand Assante -- suggests we're in for a movie with strong performances and a multi-national flavor.

But Dead Man Down -- which was written by J.H. Wyman and which is set in New York City -- proves to be a murky affair, an overly complex story that revolves around Manhattan real estate, mobsters (domestic and Albanian), explosive violence and an odd, evolving relationship between Farrell's Victor and Rapace's Beatrice, a beautician whose face has been badly scarred in an automobile accident.

Dead Man Down puts a variety of revenge-driven forces into play, turning itself into a puzzle of a movie that bets that we'll stick with it until its loose-ends are tied at the end. But in this case, we're asked to make our way through a thick pile of narrative sludge as Dead Man Down heads toward its ultra-violent resolution.

Part of the problem involves the characters. Farrell, who's in almost every frame, portrays an emotionally withdrawn, recessive man who works for a mobster named Alphonse (Howard). It takes time for the screenplay to get around to explaining what Victor really wants, and Farrell can seem as inert as he is mysterious.

Victor and Beatrice live in separate but neighboring apartment buildings. She watches him from her balcony and decides -- with encouragement from her mother (Huppert) -- that she ought to meet this mysterious fellow. As it turns out, Beatrice has a vengeful agenda of her own, which can't be described here without adding significant spoilers.

Suffice it to say that the movie's dreary mood extends to the performances. Rapace fares better than the others, remaining interesting despite the fact that she's playing a character that doesn't compute, but Howard, whose work I almost always enjoy, never seems to find a handle on his character.

Huppert portrays a happy woman who speaks more French than English, Assante is limited to one scene, and an equally underutilized Abraham pops in an out of the story as Victor's uncle.

The movie tries to make use of the fact that Victor -- a native of Hungry who was trained as an engineer -- has technical skills, but little about the character sticks, and in the end, Oplev resolves the plot's many conflicts with an overblown and preposterous display of violence.

Although Dead Man Down generates a bit of visual interest, it's noir musings mostly come off as leaden, unbelievable and more than a little confusing.

Disappointing as it is, Dead Man Down does boast at least one distinction: It may be the first neo-noir movie to figure out a way to work Tupperware into its plot.

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