Deadfall is the kind of unassuming thriller that’s built entirely out of familiar parts and yet still manages to make the parts work well together from time to time. It’s a dark, wintry little movie that starts on the eve of Thanksgiving, with brother and sister criminals (Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde) counting the money from their heist while zooming up a snowy, rural Michigan road. Trouble starts when they hit a deer and flip their car into a ditch, an accident that draws the attention of a passing state trooper. Covering their tracks, the brother and sister shoot him dead and split up, running their separate ways through the forest as a manhunt quickly assembles from the nearby police station.
A sort of rural noir with splashes of local color, this small, tight movie grabs suspense out of endless white plains and forests of hunters, cabins, and snowmobiles, as well as the kindness of strangers. Even though it’s actually Montreal substituting for Michigan, the setting feels convincing and atypical enough to draw some attention. Now, I’m not saying Deadfall is as good as Fargo, but much like the Coen brothers did with that film, this crime picture gains some fun and novelty out of setting traditional crime movie elements against the backdrop of an unexpected setting. Unlike the Coens, who appear to be constitutionally incapable of playing anything straight for too long – indeed it’s their verbal and visual wit that make them near constant delights – this film is dark and relentless.
The plot grows to include a couple of broken families trying to reconnect over this Thanksgiving weekend. In a big house in the country, mere miles from the opening accident, there’s a crusty old retired sheriff (Kris Kristofferson) and his wife (Sissy Spacek) who get a call from their son (Charlie Hunnam) downstate. He’s just been released from jail and wants to stop by. We also meet a tenacious young deputy (Kate Mara) who clashes with the protective, condescending sheriff (Treat Williams), who just happens to be her father. As these family dramas play out against the backdrop of potential danger, the film primes some setup for later satisfying, if a touch predictable and routine, payoff. Especially by the time a snowstorm closes the road and the prodigal son picks up the hitchhiking fugitive woman who’s desperate for a place to meet up with her brother and continue their getaway, it’s clear the shape the story will take. Still, it has some fun getting there.
I certainly don’t mean to oversell this movie. It sags in the middle, drops a few plot points, and cuts off interesting undercurrents before they have much time to develop. We never do figure out the exact nature of the brother and sister’s relationship or receive clarification on various convenient coincidences here and there. It’s also a little silly at times, like when Bana gets into a fight with a stereotypical Native American man who gravely informs his attacker that he was warned about this in a dream, or when two people (I won’t say who) are meant to be in love after a brief, relatively unconvincing, period of time. Come to think of it, just about everything involving Bana’s solo hike to the climax seems awkwardly motivated and weirdly irrelevant to the big picture.
But, working from a script by Zach Dean, director Stefan Ruzowitzky, an Oscar-winner for his Holocaust thriller The Counterfeiters, keeps the tension at a nice even keel. Through unfussy craftsmanship and a trustable, solid cast, he moves things along in a way not entirely dissimilar to the feeling of compulsively turning the pages of some just-satisfying-enough airport novel. I wasn’t involved so much as I was curious to see how the plot would resolve and through what twists the stock characters would have to live to get to the end. This is a movie that works well on that level and on that level alone I was satisfied.