“Have you seen Deadfall? great michigan movie! DEADFALL”
I stare at the text, trying to understand what Pete’s trying to say. It’s not a quote by Denis Nedry… nor Peter McAllister or Ernesto Escobedo. It seems… sincere. A new movie made in Michigan? Surely I’d have h-
Oh God. An IMDB search divulges pictures of a bloodied Eric Bana, but no hint of a location. Plot synopses clarify nothing more than there being a race for “the border.” That’s promising. We have two of those. We have snow. Next, I see Empire gives Deadfall a 2-page On Location spread, where I learn that Ontario masquerades as Michigan. That’s fair, I guess. Then, during a dinner alone at home, I’m scanning Netflix’s recently added Instant Play movies, when who should appear? but a snowy, bloody Eric “Hector of Troy/Avner the Assassin” Bana staring into the middle distance.
It left me no choice. Look who rounds out the cast! Olivia Wilde, Charlie “Patrick from Children of Men, then my other stuff” Hunnam, Kris Kristofferson, Sissie Spacek, Treat Williams, Kate Mara! I sunk into the couch, ate my skillet, and watched unfold the story of Bana and Wilde’s sibling crooks making a run for Canada during a Thanksgiving blizzard.
There’s a moment in Deadfall‘s opening scene that strikes a tone that I feel will carry it through the next 90 minutes. Bana’s Addison turns around in the front seat of their getaway car, facing his sister Liza with tender eyes, and speaks a soft reassurance to the ten-year-old girl in her. The soundtrack is strained, level and brittle, ushering us late into a long story, suggesting there’s a lot ahead, and that even though these siblings jacked a casino clean, this peak will sink into a trough soon enough. It’s eerily placid watching Addison plant his twisted idea of security into his scandalously dolled up sister.
A split second later, Michigan happens. They hit a deer, careen off the road into a cornfield, and land upside down, their driver dead. It’s blizzarding out, Liza’s wearing a fish scale napkin, and the money’s scattered across the back seat. Of all the cars to conveniently pass by, it’s a cherry top, and the officer immediately calls for medical backup. Quick on his feet, Addison trudges through the snow, tells the cop “I hope you can forgive me” and shoots him dead. Really bloody dead.
This is chaos. The world of Deadfall rings of emotional detachment, human delusion, and amorality. I’m excited now for a sinister, cold look at these characters’ struggles, with director Stefan Ruzowitzky pulling no punches, batting not an eyelash, just watching the weather smother their plans. It’s that one split second that works amazingly well, with Bana sporting a sadistic glint in his eye, intoning his words with paranoid paternity. After that it’s clear that Ruzowitzky and writer Zach Dean see more potential in that glint, and so Deadfall embarks on an odyssey of arbitrary violence, meanwhile pouring on the sympathy like steamy piss in a snowdrift.
Dean gets the idea that this is going to be a movie about family, hence the Thanksgiving theme, so the story follows three completely separate families to heap on the dysfunction, and it’s guaranteed that all of them will figure into a mind-bogglingly contrived climax. Addison and Liza harbor dark secrets about their dead father. Charlie Hunnam’s Jay is estranged from his father, whom he disowned as his boxing coach and disgraced by throwing a huge match which landed him in the clink. And Kata Mara’s police officer Hanna struggles to self-actualize under her oppressive widower father, also the police chief. On top of that we get to watch an abusive drunk chase his wife out of snowbound cabin, forcing her to hide in the woods, and a bartender even gets to grumble regretfully about her ex. May I refine “family dysfunction” into “major daddy issues?”
The cast is wasted on this script. Bana, for one, performs his job well. It’s no fault of his that Addison is written to take a turn for the one-dimensionally psychopathic later on, and he invokes menacing memories of Chopper. Wilde is pretty much a sexualized Quorra from Tron: Legacy, naïve and sultry in one insecure package. Charlie Hunnam is serviceable as an angst ridden tough guy, due to a fortunate combination of boyish good looks and huge muscles. Sissy Spacek and Kris Kristofferson offer sweet, crotchety support, respectively, with the little time they’re given. Suffering worst of all are Kate Mara and daddy Treat Williams. Now what to make of them? They exist only to move the others forward and tie up the other characters’ stories. They’re given a little history, barely enough to make us pay attention, until any tension between the two is just ignored, and their story arc is nixed entirely. Mara in particular is given atrocious lines, and she doesn’t put forth much energy talking about the pigs out back with Sissy Spacek.
The novelty of this all taking place in Michigan is pretty much what got me through. I imagine the same for brother Pete, whose texts bore his self-aware appreciation for gleefully trashy entertainment. It is admittedly pretty entertaining in places. Bana’s growing derangement is fun to watch. That snowmobile chase is pretty frickin’ intense. And the immortal, half-Indian snowmobiler who knew that one day Eric Bana would jump him from behind an oak tree? This movie wouldn’t be complete without Eric Bana fighting a trash talking shaman to the death.
What’s really great is that the story simply wouldn’t have worked anywhere else. They hit a deer in the first 3 minutes for God’s sake. After robbing a Mount Pleasant casino. And hightailing it to Sault Sainte Marie. In a blizzard. Only in Michigan. Once they started name-checking towns, I was consciously resistant to the stereotypes I was sure the filmmakers were going to trot out. But, you know, they really weren’t that far off. Even down to the cursing shaman snowmobiler. Given a second, and maybe helped by the fact that I didn’t watch it with friends who would’ve instantly laughed uproariously, I realized, yes, I could imagine finding that man in the Manistee National Forest.
The geography is a bit squiffy, though. Jay’s trucking up to the Soo (sadly never name-checked) from Wayne County Correctional in the southeast, and he comes across Liza, who knocked over a casino in Mt. Pleasant, smack dab in central Michigan (hence Central Michigan University). To head north, they actually want to go east a bit to hit I-75 and go straight north to Mackinac. So how the hell do they end up on 31 in Bear Lake? I imagine the filmmakers needed a town that sounded frontier-like and halfway implausible. Maybe they were embarrassed by Gaylord. Now that I look at it, there really is nothing between 131 and Lake Huron north of Houghton Lake. Maybe that’s why they edged toward Lake Michigan. It’s making the Huron National Forest look spookily vast to me now.
All in all, Deadfall is the direct-to-DVD thriller you’ve come to expect from respected actors slumming it to shoot a gun and collect a quick paycheck. Contrived and bloated it may be, it’s actually shot quite beautifully, even if it is Ontario standing in for our (much more desirable) northern latitudes. The blacks and whites give it a noirish, desolate feel, and there are more than enough lovely framed shots that would go great on a poster. Good action in that snowmobile chase, too. Seriously. And there’s a disgusting, cringe-worthy moment involving a hand that’s been knifed to a table. Happy Thanksgiving!