‘Deadfall’ is an Effective Thriller with Strong Performances and Beautiful Cinematography

Deadfall movie poster

Deadfall” is a riveting thriller which held my attention from beginning to end, and sometimes that’s all I ask of certain movies. This one came out under the radar back in 2012, premiering on VOD first and then debuting in a few theaters, and it is no surprise in didn’t catch on with audiences as a result. But while it may not break any new ground in the crime drama genre, and I did have a couple of issues with the script, I did admire the performances from the entire cast. Also, director Stefan Ruzowitzky does strong work in keeping the level of tension high throughout the proceedings, and this is enough for me to give the movie a solid recommendation.

“Deadfall” opens with Addison (Eric Bana) and his sister Liza (Olivia Wilde) driving through a snowy landscape while on their way to the Canadian border. They have just robbed a casino which didn’t go exactly as planned (things like that never do), and their situation gets even more precarious when their car crashes which forces them to split up. The car crash which opens the movie is a hair raiser and pretty nasty, and it reminded me of how deer are more fascinated with oncoming headlights than they have any right to be.

Meanwhile, Jay (Charlie Hunnam) has just been released from prison and is contemplating the possibility of meeting up with his parents June (Sissy Spacek) and Chet (Kris Kristofferson) for Thanksgiving dinner. But things get bad for him as well after he accidently injures a former colleague severely, and he ends up on the run rather than run the risk of going back to jail. While driving through blizzard conditions he comes across Liza who is shivering due to the lack of warm clothes, and he quickly saves her from freezing to death. From there, you know all these characters’ paths will eventually cross with one another by the movie’s end.

The first thing I want to point out is how beautiful the cinematography in “Deadfall” is. It was shot in Canada and director of photography Shane Hurlbut does incredible work in capturing the snow’s beauty as well as how unforgivingly punishing it can be. Even as I watched this in a very nice air-conditioned screening room, I found myself wanting to put my jacket on. This became even more so while watching poor Olivia Wilde walk through a blizzard while wearing a miniskirt. After watching her in “Deadfall,” you cannot say she is not brave actress.

As for the performances, the best one was given by Eric Bana as Addison. The actor has left an indelible impression on us in movies like “Chopper,” “Black Hawk Down” and “Munich,” and he makes Addison a very charming bad guy. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Addison’s a psycho and someone we would all be best to keep our distance from but you can also understand why some of the characters in “Deadfall” hang out with him a lot longer than they should. Bana proves to be very unpredictable in the role, and you can never be sure at certain times if he’s going to be naughty or nice.

Wilde also delivers a strong performance as Liza, and she once again proves what a fiercely intelligent actress she is. Throughout “Deadfall,” we watch as she takes Liza from seeming like a lost girl to becoming a person whose confidence in their self continues to build. The relationship Liza ends up developing with Jay helps start the process of freeing her from Addison’s Svengali hold, and Wilde creates a fascinating portrait of a woman who manages to come into her own by the movie’s end.

Charlie Hunnam, best known for his work on the television show “Sons of Anarchy,” looks appropriately tough in the role of Jay. As we watch him getting released from prison at the movie’s start, he looks more than capable of boxing any opponent into complete submission. But the strength of Hunnam’s performance comes from those shades of vulnerability which his character cannot keep hidden. While prison has made him hard, it has not robbed him of his soul. Jay has made some foolish mistakes in his life, but Hunnam makes you care about him to where you cannot help but be deeply involved in his plight.

Kate Mara is also very good here as police officer Hannah, but she is unfortunately saddled with a father who treats her poorly because she’s a girl. Treat Williams plays Hannah’s dad, but while he’s always good, his character feels like an unnecessary addition to “Deadfall.” All we see him do is talk down to his daughter even when we can tell she is absolutely right about everything she sees going on. It’s the stupidity of characters like which really gets on my nerves.

You also have to give credit to Ruzowitzky for taking the time to cast Sissy Spacek and Kris Kristofferson as Jay’s parents. It’s astonishing to realize these two actors have never worked together before, and they bring an authentic down to earth flavor which helps ground the movie’s story in a reality we can recognize. Kristofferson’s part is a little underwritten, but it’s still fun to watch him here.

“Deadfall” ends on a somewhat frustrating note as there are a lot of loose ends left over and the fates of certain characters are left unresolved. Still, I found it to be a very entertaining movie thanks in large part to the terrific performances of the entire cast. And yes, the cinematography was incredibly beautiful, and especially for a movie which cost only $12 million to make. It alone reminds me to bring layers of clothing the next time I visit a blizzard-ridden city as I have been spoiled by the sunny California weather for far too long.

* * * out of * * * *

CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT THE INTERVIEW I DID WITH STEFAN RUZOWITZKY FOR WE GOT THIS COVERED.

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‘Chappaquiddick’ Revisits a Tragedy No Kennedy Can Escape

Chappaquiddick movie poster

“They eat their wounded upstairs.”

Lieutenant Al Giardello tells Detective Frank Pembleton this on an episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street” to describe the politicians who have invited Pembleton to help them out on a delicate matter involving a congressman. So eager he is to impress his bosses, Pembleton suggests letting a police report get buried, covered up, and the Deputy Commissioner orders him to do so. But when this matter is made public to where a scandal erupts in the news, the Commissioner denies his own involvement and lets Pembleton take the fall. Pembleton has become one of the wounded as the higher ups in the department hang him out to dry, and we see what politicians will do to keep their political currency protected at all costs.

I kept thinking about this exchange while watching “Chappaquiddick” which takes us back to the year 1969 when Senator Ted Kennedy was involved in a car accident. While attempting to cross the Dike Bridge on Chappaquiddick Island in Massachusetts, his car went off the side and plunged into the water. Ted was able to free himself, but his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, remained trapped inside and eventually drowned. Ted failed to report this incident to the police until 10 hours after it happened, and we watch as his closest advisers look for ways to spin the story to their advantage as the scandal threatens to derail Ted’s political career and forever tarnish the image of the Kennedy family.

The car accident is presented in bits and pieces throughout because, as anyone who has been in an accident can tell you, no one remembers everything in a linear fashion. After the initial accident, the story jumps ahead to a soggy Ted Kennedy walking slowly back to the house where he, his advisers and secretaries were having a party. When his close friend Joe Gargan sees him shivering in the back of a car, Ted simply says, “I’m not going to be President.” From there, everyone goes into damage control mode as they try to get a hold of the narrative and manipulate it to where Ted will come out of this accident in one piece. But there is still a dead body in the center of this tragedy, and some in the inner circle are not about to let this fact go away.

It’s fascinating to watch the political spin machine at work in “Chappaquiddick” as this kind of press manipulation is a regular thing these days, but even back in 1969 the truth was not so easy to bend as the truth still found a way to the surface. Still, we feel the pressure of the press as Ted and company scramble to come up with an answer which will exonerate the Senator in the eyes of his constituents and America at large. There are scenes where his advisers come up with ridiculous scenarios to explain Ted’s actions, like getting a physician to explain how Ted suffered a concussion in the accident even though he isn’t given a chance to examine the senator. Then there’s the story about how Ted was put on sedatives because of his concussion, but a reporter points out how taking sedatives in this condition could easily kill him. And let’s not forget the neck brace fiasco which Ted didn’t even bother rehearsing. There was no Facebook or social media back then, but there was still enough attention paid to where Ted could not walk away from this tragedy unscathed.

At the center of “Chappaquiddick” is Jason Clarke who portrays Ted Kennedy. Many actors could have easily fallen victim to simply playing the late senator as the icon we all see him as and saddle themselves with an accent which makes them sound like Mayor Quimby from “The Simpsons.” Clarke never falls into any of those traps and instead makes Ted as human as anybody else, full of flaws and passions which at times get the best of him. It’s a wonderfully complex performance as Clarke shows how Ted worked to control how the news of this tragedy coming out while wrestling with a conscience that will not let him escape the guilt he feels. Just watch Clarke as he phones Mary’s parents to inform them of her death. It’s a heartbreaking moment, and not an easy one to pull off.

Special mention goes to Kate Mara who plays Mary Jo Kopechne. It’s a small role, but Mara makes the most of her time onscreen as she forces us to see Mary as much more than a mere historical footnote. We learn Mary was a devoted supporter of Bobby Kennedy and his values, and she desperately wants to believe Ted can deliver on the same promises Bobby made before he was killed. This makes her final onscreen moments where Kate is desperately keeping her head above water as she hopes for a miracle which never comes. Whether or not you knew of Mary Jo’s existence before this movie, Mara’s performance ensures we never forget her once we leave the theater.

Indeed, the entire cast of “Chappaquiddick” is well chosen as each actor inhabits their role with a lot of passion and energy which makes this more than the average biopic. Ed Helms and Jim Gaffigan get to break free of their comic roles here as Joe Gargan and Paul Markham, two of Ted Kennedy’s closest advisers who are desperate for him to get his story straight before he does even more damage to his image. Helms is especially worth singling out here as he makes Joe the conscience Ted desperately needs to pay attention to, and whether or not Ted does is not worth revealing here as you have to look into Helms’ eyes to see what the answer is.

One truly brilliant performance worth singling out here comes from Bruce Dern who gives an almost wordless performance as Joe Kennedy, the patriarch of this famous family. When we meet Joe, he has long since become hobbled by a stroke and aphasia, and this makes Dern’s work all the more challenging as he has to express things to the audience without the use of words. The final scene he has with Clarke is brutal as the frustrations and disappointments these two have with one another come to their breaking point.

It’s great to see Clancy Brown here as the no-nonsense Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara as he cuts through the bull to make sure the narrative runs as smoothly as possible for the incumbent senator. From the first moment he appears onscreen, the “Highlander” actor shows the audience he means business as McNamara moves quickly into damage control mode and freaks when the most thoughtless of mistakes are made by subordinates.

Olivia Thirlby also shows up here as Rachel Schiff, another loyal Kennedy secretary and close friend to Mary. It’s fascinating to watch Thirlby here as she takes Rachel from being totally devastated upon learning of her friend’s death to racing into damage control mode. Whatever you may think of her actions, Thirlby shows how devoted she is to the Kennedy family as she feels the country cannot suffer over one person’s mistake.

Also worth mentioning is Vince Tycer, a noted theater director in Connecticut, who plays David Burke, an individual known as a aide to powerful men. It’s fascinating to watch Tycer in “Chappaquiddick” as he hovers in the shadows next to Ted Kennedy and looks ready to defend the senator’s honor in any possible way. This is another character who could have been played in too broad a fashion, but Tycer plays David in a thoughtfully subtle way as this is a character who is more than willing to set aside his own thoughts and desires for something he considers to be the greater good.

“Chappaquiddick” was directed by John Curran who previously helmed such movies as “The Painted Veil” and “Tracks,” and he wrote the screenplay for Michael Winterbottom’s highly controversial “The Killer Inside Me.” Curran gives this film an underplayed feel as he wants us to see these characters not as historical figures forever defined by their public images, but as people like you and me. The more we see ourselves in these characters’ shoes, the more we get sucked into the story to where this becomes more than your average biopic or just another movie which is (sigh) “based on a true story.”

The only real problem I had with this movie was it felt a little too underdone to where an infusion of energy could have come in handy. I kind of wish Curran had livened up the proceedings at times, especially when it came to watching the walls close in on Ted. There is passion on display here, but that passion could have been stronger in retrospect.

Regardless, “Chappaquiddick” proves to be a fascinating look into the broad scope of political power and at the life of a man born into privilege who uses it to escape a harsh punishment with his career mostly intact. Ted did go on to become the “Lion of the Senate” as he fought long and hard for social justice and universal health care, but I left this movie wondering if his actions were taken to atone for his part in Mary Jo’s death. In the eyes of many Americans, he earned his forgiveness, but a closeup of Clarke’s eyes in this movie’s final moments suggests Ted never fully forgave himself. Did he truly earn a redemption in the years following this accident? We may never truly know, and this makes “Chappaquiddick” especially haunting.

* * * ½ out of * * * *