Seconds into ‘Deadfall,’ the lives of two of the main characters are sent careening off course by a fluke accident. They are siblings Addison (Eric Bana) and Liza (Olivia Wilde), making a fast getaway from a casino robbery. They’re driving down a snowy road when a deer darts in front of their car, smashing through the windshield and flipping the vehicle into the woods. If everything had gone according to plan, Addison and Liza would have escaped. Through sheer coincidence, they did not.
Everything in ‘Deadfall’ works that way. There are so many unlikely chance encounters and random acts of bad luck that a case could be made that the movie is not merely exploiting narrative coincidence, but trying to say something about it. Sadly, any intended messages gets lost amidst a sea of absurd plotting and tired film noir clichés.
Consider this one, which be(dead)falls our other protagonist, a former boxer named Jay (Charlie Hunnam). Freshly released from prison, he immediately pays a visit to a shady promoter who forced him to throw a match. Bear in mind, Jay is just hours out of jail. What does he do? He gets into a fight, they struggle and the promoter cracks the back of his head on a filing cabinet. He immediately collapses to the floor, unconscious, bleeding and apparently dead. Yes, it’s the old I-didn’t-mean-to-kill-him-and-I-was-about-to-get-my-life-back-on-track gag. People in bad movies are always dying from mild, unintentional knocks on the head. Let this be a lesson: if you find yourself in a schlocky crime thriller, always wear a helmet.
Jay goes on the run and, in another happy accident, stumbles across Liza on the side of the road after she’s been separated from Addison. Her brother has a few unhappy accidents of his own — encountering a hunter and later a brutal, abusive stepfather in the North Michigan wilderness. And the chance blizzard in the area snows in Jay and Liza. How fortunate! They get to spend some time together hunkered down in a local bar, where they have sex twice; enough to seemingly cure Liza of a lifetime of crazy, possibly incestuous criminal behavior caused by childhood abuse.
The theme of damaged people trying to heal the wounds of bad parenting recurs in ‘Deadfall’ almost as often as coincidence. Jay’s got issues with his own father (Kris Kristofferson), though he maintains a solid relationship with his mom (Sissy Spacek). And the young State Trooper (Kate Mara) tracking the casino robbers is dealing with her dad (Treat Williams), who also happens to be her boss and a total sexist. What are the odds every single one of these characters will wind up in the same farmhouse, all armed with guns, on Thanksgiving? In this movie? Surprisingly good.
Jay and Liza’s redemption arc is patently absurd — who knew sex with Charlie Hunnam was so therapeutic? — but at least there’s some chemistry between the actors; Spacek and Kristofferson play a couple that’s been married for decades, but they look like they just met at the craft services table earlier that morning. Bana brings his standard level of bubbling menace, but his honey-thick Alabama drawl is destined to become a mainstay on lists of the worst accents by great actors for years to come.
‘Deadfall’ culminates with an ending as implausible as it is inevitable. Along the way there are multiple hand disfigurements and more knotted family trees than an all-access pass to Ancestry.com. At its best, ‘Deadfall’ feels like the movie equivalent of a totally forgettable novel you’d buy at the airport, right down to the utterly generic title. At its worst, it convinces you that there is such a thing as fate — and that yours is temporarily an unfortunate one.
‘Deadfall’ hits theaters in limited release on Friday, Dec. 7.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’