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:: Dead Man Down

As the magnate that is Gatsby finally lands and critical opinion begins to circulate, we could say that its reception thus far has been lukewarm. What has perhaps been the theme to these initial impressions has been an alleged identity crisis. According to these reviews, Gatsby’s particular issue is a tension of authorial presence—a bout between Baz and Fitgerald. And this conflict of artistic voice is nothing new in the history of cinema, never more cataclysmic than when adapting literature for the screen. While maybe not a collision of two distinct artistic personalities, Dead Man Down nonetheless suffers from a similar filmic identity crisis. Niels Arden Oplev’s film has yet to decide whether it is an indie film or a Hollywood blockbuster and, unfortunately, fails to satisfy either.

Victor (Colin Farell) is a rising gangland player in the New York Underworld, answering to the ruthless crime lord, Alphonse (Terrence Howard). After the woman who lives in the apartment across from him, Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), discovers a dark secret of Victor’s, she blackmails him into agreeing to exact revenge for her. But she is not alone on the campaign trail of bloody retribution as Victor has demons of his own he wishes to slay, demons who killed his wife and son, demons in his own crime family.

Faced with the usual moral trappings of all vigilante films, Dead Man Down nonetheless relishes in its own primality as it explores a very dark corner of the human heart. While not offering the sub-genre anything particularly fresh, the film has its moments of taut dramatic tension and The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo director, Oplev, extracts some fine performances from Farrel, Howard and Rapace.

Another one of the joys of the film is its use of locations. Shot in New York, the locations stage these characters on the fringe of society; we are pushing into a primal, animalistic part of the human soul: a lonely, abandoned space where the infrastructure is as decayed as the morality of those who occupy it. These are alienated, forgotten, dying urban zones that act together in a visceral way, an unease reminiscent of 1970s New Hollywood—Friedkin’s The French Connection comes to mind—with some fantastic cinematography from Paul Cameron. And the vigilante attitude is almost justified in this moral post-apocalypse, however the film hesitates in entirely committing to this tone, forsaking the viewer in the intermediary limbo. It is when you are just sinking into this world that you will be frustratingly jarred out of it, never more apparent than in the film’s treatment of violence.

The violence seesaws between the ugly brutality of films like Drive and the viscerally divorced movie-violence of your standard Hollywood action fare. And it is exactly the latter that we are disappointingly given at the end (in a building that is very obviously a set, I may add) as opposed to something rawer and grittier. The result is a trivialization of the emotion of the film that weakens the entire product.

At the end of the day, it is Dead Man Down’s tonal ambivalence that is its greatest enemy. Forgetting a few plot points that seemed a little too convenient, this film had the potential to be a strong, moody, if somewhat unoriginal, revenge flick - perhaps even a homage to the New Hollywood era of cinema. Unfortunately it is its own delayed pubescent identity crisis that retards it from realizing this potential.