A rustling bundle of green and a swiftly pooling splash of red on the blanket of pure white; there are few specifically set genres that I enjoy as much as a snowbound crime thriller. The cash calls out to the characters and no matter how good their intentions for it the weather makes the worst of their plans, nature perverting nature, the end result always the same, the spilling of blood enough to even the scales. What’s not to love? Profits, demons and the snow: you put these elements together like so and you will end up with a potent plot of some sort. It’s a simple plan to be sure but with a cast like this (Eric Bana, Charlie Hunnam, Olivia Wilde, Kate Mara, Sissy Spacek and Kris Kristofferson to name a few) it is one that surely couldn’t fail (I guess that’s what attracted them all to the project, I doubt that it was the paycheck) and yet, in the tradition of these things nothing quite goes to plan.
There was talk once of a TV series based on the film Fargo; perhaps the most famous example of this genre around. I had often wondered just how that would have worked, what the story would have been but couldn’t quite put my fingers on it. Here in the first half of this film though lies the answer; the sheer number of characters introduced, crimes committed and short intervening vignettes of story that occur in the script suggest a structure and pacing better suited for the now only slightly smaller screen, though the content may be of clear cinematic origin. This may make the movie sound either muddled or complicated but these two things are not among its list of flaws, their opposites are.
Like the trap from which the film took its title Deadfall is an elegantly contrived piece of cinema, the pieces of the plot all slotting precisely into place just when they need to (though just where that may be is not always where you would expect). You could then say that this means the strings are visible, but it’s common knowledge that every puppet has strings and a master pulling at them, so why are you still looking up there when it is the faces on the marionettes that matter far more? That strange statement is especially true in regards to Deadfall since rather than some kind of Sam Raimi-esque exercise in genre the film is actually much more of a character study. The cash that sets the story in motion is seen only once outside of the first few minutes and that is in a small moment that speaks volumes about Bana’s ‘bama native.
So seen solely as a snow-noir – or a blanc, to coin a phrase – the film is something of a failure – there isn’t enough dread in the atmosphere nor enough attention paid to the criminal side of the story – but then, no matter what the synopsis may suggest, the film was never intended to be just that. This sleight of hand with the stories genre is just another example of the many ways in which Deadfall subverts our expectations (there is a scene early on in which Eric Bana attacks an unaware civilian. We expect, given the horror movie dress that the film wears for the sequence, that he will slaughter the stranger but instead he is bested. We watching along from the outside just as shocked as he).
Truthfully though it’s also rather roughshod as a simple character study, what we are told about the characters evaporates at the end of each scene: Olivia Wilde plays the simpleton sister, the Billy Bob Thornton role in some scenes but is back to being sexy in others, Mara’s plight is maddening but only the first offense raises the feminist ire, the others simply preaching to the choir, Eric Bana can’t quite convince with his Southern accent and Hunnam is hardly given anything to do. There are some strong soliloquies and quiet moments throughout but on an individual level none of the cast really elevate their characters into the complex (though Bana does the best). Thankfully then here, along the Northern border of the United States, no-one is really ever alone.
The film really started working best for me when the third act set in and I figured out just what genre it really was. There is another type of film that features people pushed to their limits in the deep winter snow and it’s one we’ve all just finished seeing: Seasonal cinema. Deadfall is a damned holiday picture with all the trappings of a thriller: The prodigal son makes the journey through the snow to see his parents and apologize, the sister struggling to separate from the sibling that raised her, that saved her, finally finds some spirit and the daughter attempting to make her way out from under the shadow of her sheriff father, well I daresay that she will only have worse daddy issues after all that. These are all tropes that we recognize, they are just told here with a gun in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
Deadfall is so structured and precise with its plotting and yet so loose with every other element of its movie making – its biggest and not its best surprise. There are three great actors in the lead roles but it never quite manages to choose who to focus on, who to root for and who to revile; so how are we supposed to have any idea? Similarly there are three tones the story could have successfully taken but instead of picking and then sticking to one path it wanders across the three and ends up a little lost because of it.