What do Nicolas Winding Refn and Niels Arden Oplev have in common? They’re both Danish film directors. They’ve both been sought out by the Hollywood machine. Both have created international critical and commercial hits. Refn created the Pusher series, and the U.S. success Drive (with Ryan Gosling), which enjoys a 7.8 rating on IMDB. Oplev created phenomenal television with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, also enjoying a 7.8 rating on IMDB. Yes, television. TGWTDTT and the subsequent 2 films were actually cut from a Swedish TV mini-series which also included 2.5 additional hours of footage.
Oplev and Refn feature verbally challenged, emotionally damaged anti-heroes in their films. They both allow scenes to unfold at a deliberately leisurely pace, and allow dilemmas to percolate over a low flame. Both pay close attention to color, style, and textures – using strong visuals to tell much of the story. Their films can include a large complicated cast of characters, and can up-end a thoughtful, emotional scene with unexpected mayhem at any point.
In some ways, it’s hard to distinguish many differences between Refn’s Drive and Oplev’s Dead Man Down. It’s almost as if they’ve deliberately taken a European “art house” noir thriller, and blended it with the romance half of a rom-com, and a pinch of Mamet caper flick for good measure. (Minus the rich dialogue.) One scene in particular from DMD plucks at the rom-com lyre: Rapace is standing at an elevator as Ferrell is about to step in. It’s clear her character’s emotional arc has hit its apogee. It’s an absurd homage (given these characters’ wretched situations), evoking memories of Julia Roberts standing at Hugh Grant’s door in Notting Hill. One can almost hear, “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her,” except in this film she doesn’t say anything.
Good things come from these techniques. It can be infectiously maddening to watch deeply flawed characters strain to overcome their own fates.
One notable aspect of DMD is that the main characters, with so little dialogue, must rely on actual skills to convey emotion: body language, facial expressions, timing, interactions with their space and fellow actors. We Americans are used to clichÃƒÂ©, and every time you expect one in this film, it doesn’t happen. We know what the characters are thinking, without them saying anything.
Along with avoiding clichÃƒÂ©d dialogue, the plot and action are similarly unpredictable. The plot could be described as a step or two overcomplicated. Oplev violates the law of economy of characters, and plot. This is actually a lot of fun. The story takes one winding turn after another, and every time a typical Hollywood setup comes into focus, an equally un-Hollywood reaction detours us again.
The slow progression, lack of typical dialogue, and unexpected turns will frustrate anyone simply looking to be entertained. (Mind you, there are several hyper-violent action sequences, to entertain the brute in all of us.) But for the patient, cerebral, art house enthusiast, Dead Man Down will pay off with a wildly anti-climactic, yet climactic finale, managing to cleverly fulfill our expectations.
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