“So many screenwriters are taught to be economical,” Dead Man Down scribe J.H. Wyman told Film.com in a recent interview, “and I don’t really understand that.” Given that his new thriller proceeds at roughly the pace of Sátántangó before finally clocking in at a supremely overlong two hours, a fundamental misunderstanding of narrative economy does indeed seem like an apt self-diagnosis, even if he doesn’t, in his own words, “really give a shit about the rules.” And so in keeping with this iconoclastic sentiment, Wyman’s script features such radical transgressions as inexplicably abandoned plot threads, cheaply manipulative turnabouts and twists, and crudely delineated character motivations. The film even expends an inordinate amount of time and effort setting up an elaborate climactic set piece in an explosives-rigged warehouse that, when the climax finally arrives, is bypassed entirely. One way to describe such textual idiosyncrasies would be to say that they’re the habits of a writer who doesn’t give a shit about the rules. Another simpler way would be to say that they’re signs of bad writing.
It may be incidental, but one strangely likeable consequence of all of this narrative bloat is that, when it isn’t trying hard to be a serious thriller, Dead Man Down has a certain leisurely quality that can be sort of refreshing, particularly when its emotional register is working toward romance. Though it spends the bulk of its running time operating within the confines of the crime picture, the action occasionally veers off (one might even say digresses) into a love story that’s as hamfisted and dorky as it is appealingly endearing, one in which mob-world lackey Victor (Colin Farrell) and revenge-seeking beautician Beatrice (Noomi Rapace) struggle in vain to heal their broken hearts. This subplot is still totally prosaic, but the strange languor of their scenes together—the looseness of the narrative allows moments of repose to linger—is nevertheless a point of interest in a film severely lacking in them. Dead Man Down’s pacing problems are more often a case of unnecessary idling that might have been resolved with even a modicum of expediency; the film withholds exposition when it’s needed for clarity, only to stop and dump it in our laps when we’re finally ready for the action to begin. Its staggered pacing obliterates any sense of the forward momentum needed for the film to actually seem thrilling, a problem exacerbated by the tendency of Niels Arden Oplev’s direction to favor suggestions of threats and tension over actually delivering on the same; the combination of strained anticipation and lopsided structure makes a satisfying pay-off next to impossible.
The action, in other words, merely meanders when it should be hurtling forward, running in circles when one expects it to head toward a conclusion or some sense of resolution. The film opens with a protracted shootout between Victor’s gang, headed by the headstrong Alphonse (Terrence Howard), and a group of drug dealers they suspect of plotting against them, before taking a sharp and entirely unexpected turn barely 20 minutes in toward an unrelated subplot with Beatrice and the man upon whom she wants vengeance. These two largely unrelated plots run simultaneously, but are so poorly integrated into the film that it’s hard to feel especially invested in either—we take so long to return to Alphonse after that opening set piece, for instance, that one could be forgiven for forgetting his motivations and concerns altogether. And one scene in which Alphonse confronts Victor in an abandoned office tower at night is so poorly explained that, when it suddenly cuts to the next day, it briefly seems as though two reels had been mistakenly exchanged. Few thrillers could get away with such sloppiness.