Deadfall

To be sure of fully grasping Deadfall, I consulted my dictionary, which defines “deadfall” as, first, a trap poised with heavy weight; and second, a tangled mass of fallen trees. The movie is not falsely advertised: It’s set among trees, with fallenness as a theme and tangledness as a narrative strategy, and it feels inescapably heavy.

Deadfall is a thriller from the Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky, who won an Oscar for 2007’s The Counterfeiters and now gets to make American-style shlock. It’s also the first big break for screenwriter Zach Dean, and possibly an infuriating setback for other still unbroken screenwriters who’ve disciplined themselves to work harder at avoiding clunky contrivance.

Somewhere in the snowy woods of Michigan, sibling robbers Addison and Liza (Eric Bana, Olivia Wilde) find themselves and their stolen cash in a nasty car wreck. Thinking quickly and maniacally, Addison then kills an intervening state trooper, leers possessively at his sister, and decides they should make a break for Canada, separately, on foot. Sure, why not?

Not far away, meanwhile, a one-time boxer named Jay (Charlie Hunnam) has just gotten out of prison and gotten into trouble with his former trainer. Soon Jay too is on the run, toward the rural home of his adoring mother (Sissy Spacek) and unforgiving father (Kris Kristofferson). Along the way he meets and falls for Liza, who happens to discover his parents’ address and let Addison know to meet her there instead of Canada. Sure, why not?

Not far away, meanwhile, the slain trooper’s colleagues mount a manhunt, from which the lone lady deputy (Kate Mara) finds herself excluded by a sheriff (Treat Williams) who happens to be her unforgiving father. And by now it has become obvious that Addison and Liza’s father wasn’t exactly forgiving either. Maybe it’s helpful to know that before becoming Deadfall, Dean’s script was known as Kin.

In Ruzowitzky’s hands it seems like Coen brothers for amateurs: a pile of money, a string of killings, a try for wry humor in grim situations, with characters both piteous and venerable on both sides of the law. The familiar structure — subplots in search of unification — can be rewarding, but it’s like a house of cards, needing delicacy and skillful display. Here, every would-be sinister or suspenseful turn seems increasingly silly, and in sum unsatisfying. Striving ponderously toward its climactic Thanksgiving-dinner showdown, Deadfall  just stages one implausible plot point after another, each ostensibly a pulpy twist but really an excuse for bland troubled-family backstory revelation.

Here’s a sample exchange between Addison and a frightened little girl whose unforgiving father he’s just killed:

“Are you gonna kill me?”

“No. You’re a child. Children should be protected.”

“Angels protect me.”

“Well maybe that’s how you should think of me….”

Then he kills someone else. “You’re no angel at all,” says the girl. “No I am not,” he replies. Ok, glad we unpacked that.

The movie could have been an actors’ showpiece, but the actors haven’t much to show. Hunnam knits his eyebrows to convey a tortured soul. Bana fakes a Southern accent and seems impervious to coldness (be it from snowstorms or psychopathy). Spacek, Kristofferson, and Wilde seem happy just to have their paychecks, and with ironic correctness, Mara seems insufficiently appreciated.

Next time maybe less deadfall, more clear cut.