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NPR Arts & Life

'Deadfall': Sibling Mischief In The Michigan Woods

Addison (Eric Bana) and Liza (Olivia Wilde) run for the Canadian border after a casino heist gone wrong.
Addison (Eric Bana) and Liza (Olivia Wilde) run for the Canadian border after a casino heist gone wrong.

Everyone gets roughed up pretty bad in Deadfall, a pop-Freudian thriller set in Michigan's north woods. But nobody comes off worse than the out-of-towners: Australian star Eric Bana and Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky.

The latter won the 2008 foreign-film Oscar for The Counterfeiters, a partly true story of a man who uses his criminal skills to survive Auschwitz and eventually leave Poland. In a sense, this movie's setup is similar: A pair of reprobate siblings head into a snowy forest, splitting up in hopes of crossing the Canadian border. (Never mind that Ontario isn't a particularly congenial place to be a fugitive from U.S. justice.)

If Deadfall is another survival parable, its wintry location doesn't provide for much man-against-nature struggle. Addison (Bana) and younger sister Liza (Olivia Wilde) are crypto-Faulknerian types from backwoods Alabama, but their down-home skills are limited primarily to shootin' and stabbin'.

In the opening sequence, Addison and Liza flee a casino robbery, only to be left vehicle-less by a devastating crash. Addison goes off-road, while Liza hitches a ride with Jay (Charlie Hunnam), an ex-boxer who has just gotten out of prison and is already in trouble again. Big brother has more transitory encounters, but rarely goes long without meeting — and often killing — some Michigander. A few of them seem to deserve it.

The heroes, villains and antiheroes of Zach Dean's script all share something besides guns and snowmobiles: daddy issues. Addison and Liza are — nudge, nudge — very close, and that intimacy is rooted in the way he protected her from their reportedly loathsome father; meanwhile Jay has been feuding with his pop and former boxing coach, Chet (Kris Kristofferson), since the kid won only a silver medal at the Beijing Olympics. (Yes, really.) While on his trek, the ruthless-but-fair Addison rescues a woman and her two children, who have been turned out into the snow by another abominable patriarch.

And then there's Hanna (Kate Mara), the only competent police officer between Battle Creek and Thunder Bay. She skillfully pursues Addison, but keeps being called back by the woman-cop-hating local sheriff (Treat Williams), who happens to be her dad. His hapless deputies must have learned from him all they know about police procedure, which is approximately nothing.

Jay (Charlie Hunnam) comes across Liza in the cold and takes her in.
Jonathan Wenk / Magnolia Pictures
Jay (Charlie Hunnam) comes across Liza in the cold and takes her in.

If there's hope for Deadfall's frozen universe, it doesn't sport an XY chromosome. In addition to Hanna, the good cop, there's June (Sissy Spacek), Jay's good mom. Even Liza, a self-serving seducer with a near-paranormal eye-widening ability, is teetering on the verge of goodness — although it's hard to believe that sullen, slow-witted Jay is the guy to save her.

The movie's violence, although gruesome, flirts with slapstick, and the story appears bound for domestic comedy when all the major characters sit down for Thanksgiving dinner at June and Chet's grand Victorian farmhouse. But the meal becomes more freak show than satire, as Addison's behavior — and Bana's performance — turns increasingly nutty. The guy has shown flashes of decency, but roast goose seems to bring out the B-movie psychopath in him.

For Ruzowitzky, Deadfall seems nothing more than work for hire. The thriller has a few narrative advantages, including the chilly terrain and the separation of Addison and Liza for most of the running time; cutting between the two siblings' progress nicely boosts the movie's momentum. Too bad they're not moving toward something more interesting than redemptive love and mom's apple pie.

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