You won’t find Stefan Ruzowitzky’s “Deadfall” on anybody’s 10-best list for the year, but if you need a break from the po-faced seriousness of holiday moviegoing as much as I did, this atmospheric, suspenseful, snowbound crime thriller with a creepy, sexy undertow may be just the ticket. In other times and other circumstances, I can imagine “Deadfall” being a semi-big deal: We’ve got an Oscar-winning European director (Ruzowitzky’s “The Counterfeiters” captured the 2007 foreign-language prize) making his first American film, with a terrific B-movie cast, an eye for wintry northern landscapes, tremendous sense of pacing and a passion for genre filmmaking.
But the classic rural-noir setup of “Deadfall” is just slightly out of step with the times, and so it ends up on our collective doorsteps as a December indie release, reaching theaters several weeks after its VOD debut. Maybe screenwriter Zach Dean should have made Eric Bana’s folksy, charismatic stone-cold killer character into a one-man al-Qaida sleeper cell, sweeping through the north woods of Michigan on a frostbitten mission of jihad. Bana is one of those actors I always enjoy seeing, even though he’s often consigned to crap roles in crap movies. He’s good-looking, moves well and has a slightly snakelike charm, but may just lack that undefinable something that could have made him a major star rather than the guy who plays the lead in obscure thrillers.
In "Deadfall" he plays Addison, a polite Alabamian on the run after a casino robbery who feels genuinely bad about all the people he has to kill, and acts slightly offended when a little girl asks whether he’s going to kill her too. “No,” he says with certainty. “You’re a child. Children should be protected.” This goes way back, you see. Addison has an exceptionally sexy little sister named Liza (Olivia Wilde), and if their relationship doesn’t seem totally appropriate, it’s a hell of a lot better than the one Liza had with their drunken dad, who was murdered years ago by persons unknown (if you catch my drift). Liza seems to have played a role in the casino stickup too, since she’s forced to wander through the woods in a silver lamé dress and sheer stockings after the gruesome car crash that leaves them stranded.
Yes, this is one of those archetypal American thrillers that starts with a couple of losers stuck in nowheresville with a garbage bag full of cash, and then introduces a stream of other characters whom we know will all converge at some point, and not in a good way. If you’re rolling your eyes or whatever, go see some other doggone movie. At their rural homestead, a crusty older couple played by Sissy Spacek and Kris Kristofferson are getting ready for Thanksgiving dinner, and … hold on. Back up! Did I just say that Sissy Spacek and Kris Kristofferson are in this movie? I did, and in all seriousness it’s one of the best combos in any American movie all year long. Their spare, ordinary, uncommunicative first scene together should be played on endless loop at every acting school in the land. If it was on YouTube (and maybe it is!), I’d watch it again right now.
Anyway, their no-account son, Jay (“Sons of Anarchy” star Charlie Hunnam), who was once an Olympic boxer, has just gotten out of prison down in Detroit and is heading home for what promises to be a tense and ambivalent Thanksgiving. Would it surprise you to learn that he picks up Liza along the way, who is using her feminine wiles to cadge a ride, and that they wind up stuck together in an all-night diner with an adjacent motel? It might not. And then there’s the small-town sheriff’s deputy named Hanna (Kate Mara), the only woman in the department run by her sexist-pig dad (a tiny but memorable turn for Treat Williams). She wants to prove that she’s tough enough for police work, and her dad’s convinced that if she goes out in the field people will get killed, and they’re both pretty much proved right.
Much of the pleasure in “Deadfall” comes from Ruzowitzky’s intimate appreciation of the weather and the landscape, elements that play a decreasing role in CGI-dependent Hollywood movies. (The cinematography is by Shane Hurlbut, and yes, the shoot was actually in cheaper and snowier Quebec, not in Michigan.) Beyond that, he manages both tension and expectation masterfully: Even though we pretty much know what’s going to happen – or what range of events is likely to happen – “Deadfall” is continually full of crazy surprises, largely thanks to Bana’s irresistible but increasingly deranged Addison, who plows through several cops, an abusive backwoods dad and a snowmobile-riding American Indian on his way to the final confrontation at the Spacek-Kristofferson farmhouse.
Hunnam arguably gets a bit outclassed here, as he has to play the sincere lunkhead straight man trapped between the wacked-out bipolar extremes of his brand-new girlfriend and the maimed, shotgun-wielding brother she hasn’t exactly told him about. I developed a new appreciation for Olivia Wilde, though, after seeing her in way too many junky movies playing the role of Girl Sure to Be Described as “Willowy.” She nails a nice balance of sexy, shticky and dangerous here, which reminded me both that she was pretty good on “House” and that her dad is the Irish writer Andrew Cockburn. So that was a win-win. Sure the end of “Deadfall” is pretty conventional; this isn’t the second coming of Kubrick or whatever. But don’t let anyone tell you this movie’s a failure because it won’t make money; it’s a tight, taut, expertly crafted thriller from a director to watch.
“Deadfall” opens this week in Boston, Los Angeles, New York and Washington. It opens Dec. 14 in Atlanta, Denver, Philadelphia, St. Louis, San Diego and Seattle; and Dec. 21 in San Francisco and Columbus, Ohio, with more cities to follow. It's also available on-demand from cable, satellite and online providers.