Today, I do something that I promised myself I would try to never do: Sit through a film that’s gotten panned left and right. Why? Noomi Rapace, Colin Farrell, Terrence Howard, Dominic Cooper, F. Murray Abraham, and Isabelle Huppert, that’s why. Plus, it’s the American debut of Niels Arden Oplev, he who directed the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and the trailers looked very interesting.
So I went ahead to see just how bad Dead Man Down could possibly be. How bad was it?
*heavy sigh* Hooooo boy. Man oh man. Gentle reader, you don’t even know.
The very instant we first fade in, we’re treated to a scene of Dominic Cooper and Colin Farrell. Farrell remains silent the whole time while Cooper is going on about how humanity exists to create things, how we were supposed to be social creatures, just babbling on and on. And all the while, he’s holding his infant son. There’s absolutely no context for this scene, and yet we’re expected to play psychiatrist to this nutjob we’ve only just met with no idea of who he is. Even worse, there’s an innate sense that absolutely none of this terribly-written twaddle will be important in any way later on. And no, it never is.
Yeah, this movie wasted absolutely no time jumping the shark.
For those who aren’t familiar with Roger Ebert’s Law of Plots, it reads thusly: “If you can’t describe a plot with clarity, there wasn’t one.” I was very forcefully reminded of this adage while watching the first act of this picture. I had no idea who these characters were, what they were talking about, what they were accomplishing, or why they were doing anything. I just sat through the film in a haze until roughly the 40-minute mark, when the plot was good enough (however reluctant enough) to finally start explaining itself.
We learn that Victor (Colin Farrell) is a mobster working as a close confidante for Alphonse (Terrence Howard). The latter character has been getting death threats by way of strange puzzles and riddles, so he’s been quite eager over the past few months to shoot first and ask questions later. What he doesn’t know is that the death threats have been sent by Victor. Why? Because Alphonse had Victor’s wife and daughter killed about two years prior, and Victor has been working his way toward revenge ever since. Unfortunately, a fellow mobster named Paulie (Aaron Vexler) somehow found out about the revenge plot and went to confront Victor about it, only for Victor to kill him in response.
Got all that?
So where does Noomi Rapace fit into all of this? Well, she plays Beatrice, a neighbor who witnessed and recorded Paulie’s murder. But she doesn’t go to the police. See, Beatrice was involved in a car accident that left her face completely disfigured, and the guy who crashed into her only got three weeks’ imprisonment. She’s not satisfied with that outcome, so she blackmails Victor into killing the guy who crashed into her. And who is Beatrice’s target?
Nobody. He’s nobody. The guy is completely removed from the rest of the plot and we never learn a thing about him. I don’t even think the guy has a name.
If I tilt my head a little and squint hard to see through all the crap surrounding it, I can see a story in which one character becomes consumed by his growing desire for revenge while another character comes to abandon her desire for revenge. Both characters run in parallel yet opposing tracks as they start to fall for each other. This movie was not unsalvageable and it had real potential. Unfortunately, the execution just keeps finding new ways to fail.
Part of the problem is J.H. Wyman, best known as a writer, executive producer, and showrunner on the recently-completed “Fringe.” There are screenplays that are bad because they’re predictable, but this is the other kind. This is the kind of screenplay that’s impossible to predict because the plot is so incomprehensible, and it’s so boring that no one would care to take a guess. And based on the three-and-a-half seasons that I gave “Fringe” before quitting it, I’d guess that such screenplays are a specialty of Wyman’s.
More than that, Wyman wrote a screenplay that was convoluted, loaded with plot holes, terribly paced, and filled to the brim with bad dialogue. The film starts with weird little taunting riddles that are completely pointless, and it ends with a climax so mind-numbingly stupid that it could only have been brought to us by the WWE.
No, seriously. Of the six companies that financed and distributed this picture, one of them was WWE Studios. I don’t know what’s more baffling: That the WWE was involved with a picture that has absolutely nothing to do with wrestling, or that half a dozen companies decided that this was a project worth backing. But I digress.
All of that said, this film might have been salvaged if only the screenplay had been given to a director who knew what to do with it. Niels Arden Oplev clearly had no idea of what to do with it. Maybe it’s because this is Oplev’s American debut, or maybe he flat sucks and Dragon Tattoo was a fluke. I don’t know. I only know that Oplev’s direction shows startling incompetence. This film was clearly made by a man with no knowledge of how to pace or edit a scene, and there’s no faster way to make a bad screenplay even worse.
To wit: There’s a scene in which Victor kills a man by tying him to a chair and letting rats eat him. Yet the scene was shot and edited in such a way that the rats were clearly harmless. The “victim” was screaming his head off, but the rodents looked complacent as could be. I would have laughed if it wasn’t so pitiful.
As further evidence of Oplev’s incompetence, I submit the score. Composer Jacob Groth seemed determined to make his music as emphatic as possible, like he was trying to make up for the utter lack of tension on the screen. The result is utterly baffling. The music kept telling me that something really important and dramatic was happening, despite the fact that absolutely nothing (that I could understand, anyway) was going on.
Even more pathetic, this method of operation extended to the cast as well. Remember, this is an extraordinary cast full of wonderfully talented actors. Unfortunately, this means that the actors have to use every ounce of their collective talent toward buoying the weak dialogue and incomprehensible plot. This is how we get long and awkward moments of silence that are supposed to pass for chemistry, and how we get legitimately great actors humiliating themselves as they try to make bad monologues sound good.
(Side note: Colin Farrell’s character is supposed to be playing a Hungarian. I’ll repeat that: Colin Farrell — one of the most well-known and unmistakably Irish celebrities in Hollywood — is trying to pass himself off as a Hungarian. Just… fucking… wow.)
Dead Man Down blows. The film is alternately ridiculous, overwrought, hamfisted, incomprehensible, and boring. Quite often, it’s all of the above at the exact same time. This is easily the biggest waste of talent in 2013 so far, and considering all the high-profile bombs we’ve endured over the past couple of months, that’s saying something.
It’s certainly not the worst film I’ve ever seen. I don’t hate it, I just pity it. For the sake of everyone involved, I want nothing more than to forget this film ever happened. I don’t think I’ll have any difficulty of it, either.