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Deadfall

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'Deadfall': A cold pleasure
By Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies

"Deadfall" is a nifty little noir thriller that showcases solid acting and potent action, all within strikingly visualized winterscapes and interiors. Director Stefan Ruzowitzky ("The Counterfeiters") gets that when you transplant noir from rain-slicked urban streets to lonely northern snowfields, the change of venue often adds a special frisson to this stylized genre. (Shane Hurlbut's moody cinematography doesn't hurt.) Dark and dirty doings leave particularly lurid stains in all that rural whiteness -- isn't white supposed to be the color of innocence? -- while snowfall, heavy and silent, deliciously muffles betrayal that ends in murder.

"Deadfall" shares this cold climate with Sam Raimi's "A Simple Plan" but avoids that film's ironic glee at the sight of greedy rubes going from bad to worse as they follow noir's typically downhill trajectory. Ruzowitzky, in this old-fashioned hybrid of Western and noir, grants his characters room for respect, whether they're rising above or sinking deeper into their existential deadfalls.

At the start, a lone car approaches along a snow-covered road bordered by dark forest, its golden headlights warming the blue-white dimness. Inside, three fugitives from a big casino heist -- siblings Addison and Liza (Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde) and an expendable driver -- are heated up over their successful getaway. Addison's jazzed enough to wax nostalgic, recalling the old family farm back in Alabama: "What would home look like?" He should know that, in noir world, feeling safe and happy makes you an instant target. In shockingly short order, the gang's out in the cold, and splashes of scarlet puddle pristine snow.
 
It's a terrifically grabby beginning, and when our Hansel and Gretel -- in a skimpy, sequined gown, yet -- head into a driving blizzard to seek sanctuary, you're hooked on "Deadfall"'s propulsive energy. Unfortunately, Zach Dean's freshman script, determined to dissect what constitutes family (see Addison's question "What would home look like?"), sometimes belabors the film's central theme via heavy-handed dialogue and plot contrivances. Never mind, the actors rescue Dean's fundamentally worthy ideas, keeping them real, fleshing them out in persuasive, natural performances. And crackerjack action scenes, like a breathtaking snowmobile chase through murky woods and over a frozen lake, make "Deadfall" too dynamic to bog down for long.

Bad dads and damaged kids abound in "Deadfall." Changing clothes in the woods, Addison casts a most unbrotherly eye at Liza's bared leg, while she croons seductively, "I'm your little girl." The macho sheriff (Treat Williams, one-note) pursuing the fugitives treats his trooper daughter (an excellent Kate Mara) like dirt, while doting on her fellow deputies, his "boys." A prodigal son ("Sons of Anarchy"'s Charlie Hunnam) just out of prison heads home, uncertain of a welcome from his unforgiving father (Kris Kristofferson). Trust that all paths will cross, for good and ill.

As Addison, Eric Bana's a super-cool crazy. He wears a handsome mask of down-home Southern gentility, thin cover for the primal violence within. Stumbling on a cabin deep in the woods, warm light spilling out its open door, he's just in time to witness a brutal paterfamilias drive his wife and kids out into the snow. An old hand at patricide, Addison's soon denned up with what's left of the family, making peanut butter sandwiches for a grave little girl, stuffing a wad of cash in the sick mom's purse. "Think of me as an angel," he soothes the wary child -- but something broken and dead and dangerous infects that sugar-daddy act. 

As an actress, Wilde's no great shakes, but the slutty slash of her carmined lips looks like a bloody wound in these whited-out environs. Small wonder: The man who made her was a "monster," and the too-loving brother who saved her is a stone killer. Easily hooking Hunnam, fresh from prison and already in flight from a nasty scrap back in Detroit, little sister gets hooked in turn, seduced by a kindred soul hungry for connection. When the couple come in out of the cold, to slow-dance body to body in a dimly lit bar, they begin to look whole.

In urban noir, every fractured setting and shadow reflects the psyche's dark, deracinated state. "Deadfall"'s wilderness of blinding snow and zero at the bone makes it imperative to get inside, to find actual and emotional shelter -- or die. Every one of the film's outlaws and pilgrims is irresistibly drawn to the clean, well-lighted place where Norman Rockwell parents (Sissy Spacek and Kristofferson, flawless) serve Thanksgiving goose and pumpkin pie. "Deadfall" deftly transforms the climactic moments of this winter's tale into a perverse portrait of the traditional dysfunctional family dinner -- therapeutic for some, devastating for others. It's a beautiful thing.

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Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.

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