Dead Man Down has style. Even though there are frequent scenes in the daytime, you never see the sun. The city is grey and washed out. When it is not raining, it either just did or looks like it is about to pour. Director Niels Arden Oplev employed these methods before for the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). Oplev freely copies his previous work, but the cold and depressing atmosphere it creates is exactly what this cold and depressing film requires.
Revenge is all about choices. One can strike while the iron is hot and just get it over with, but that course of action lacks a certain degree of suffering. For revenge to achieve maximum effectiveness, the target must know he is being targeted, must be afraid, and must endure a significant amount of time under this psychological pressure-cooker. Victor (Colin Farrell) is out for revenge and his target, Alphonse (Terrence Howard), is showing signs of buckling under the strain.
Victor is a shell of a human being. He lives like a monk, rarely talks, and does good grunt work for his criminal boss, the same Alphonse. When he is not taking orders from Alphonse, Victor is at home plotting his next move in an extremely detailed and complex revenge world he is plunging Alphonse into. Victor could kill Alphonse at any moment he chooses to, but that is too generous. Alphonse must sweat, grow paranoid, think twice about going outside, and above all, try and connect the dots on who it is that is bringing down his entire world one bullet and cryptic note at a time.
Beatrice (Noomi Rapace) lives in high-rise right next to Victor. Their apartments are so close they look at each while doing chores, smoking, or just blatantly staring across the way because there is nothing else to look at. The left side of Beatrice’s face is scarred from a car accident that has shattered more of her life than just her face. A drunk driver is responsible for her predicament and his slap-on-the-wrist punishment stops Beatrice’s life cold, as all she can do is dream of revenge.
Victor and Beatrice are both extremely wounded souls who find some faint light of comfort in each other. Victor’s story is painful indeed; however, Beatrice’s plight pales in comparison. She bears the physical scars of her life-altering event, but it is the emotional scars that eat away at her insides. Her face is only movie scarred. Just as the beast from recent Beauty and the Beast re-makes is not truly hideous and the recent phantom from Phantom of the Opera was not scarred beyond recognition, a normal person would not find Beatrice’s appearance too shocking.
Dead Man Down is well written and Oplev is such a noticeable rising auteur director that the film attracted multiple top-notch supporting actors. Isabelle Huppert, F. Murray Abraham, Dominic Cooper, and Armand Assante all pop up in small roles. Their performances are so strong they can carry the movie themselves even though they respectively have limited screen time.
An unfortunate knock against Dead Man Down is the climax. The final shoot-out was not inevitable; the noir storyline is so fresh and enjoyable that it feels like a complete let down to run smack into a standard gunfight at the OK Corral. The action scenes during the film are short and few and far between. Dead Man Down was on pace to side-step action thriller clichés and rely more on story, acting, and mood. The final act is a messy teenaged ending to what was a gripping set-up and mature study in vengeance.