There are people, your correspondent among them, who have sat through the whole of Rob Reiner’s sublime This is Spinal Tap without ever twigging that it is a spoof. In the theatre where I have just returned from watching Stefan Ruzowitzky’s brilliant Coen Brothers parody Deadfall there were people who, by their stony silence, seemed to be making the same kind of category error. Either they were, or I was.
All right; I admit to being a little wilful. Sometimes, in a dark room, you have to make your own fun.
You could forgive a chap for not spotting such a razor sharp satire based on a blackly ironic comedy: that’s hardball filmmaking in any weather. Especially when everyone in the first rate cast keeps so meticulously deadpan. In Zucker & Abrahams’ hands, Sissy Spacek might have gone all Carrie in the last act, but in Ruzowitzky’s capable hands, she never gives the game away.
On the other hand, there are clues from the outset. Eric Bana turns around in his front passenger seat and seems to address the audience: “It’s all right. It’s a good sign when you feel a little bad.” Not long after he mumbles, “I hope you can forgive me” before taking the action that, above all others, propels Deadfall‘s drama. The absurdity is subtle. Casino heister Addison (Bana) and his sister Liza (Olivia Wilde) have ill-gotten gains which they are spiriting, we know not why, towards the Canadian border. Perhaps they fancy their chances better against the Mounties. Elsewhere, paroled ex-boxer Jay (Charlie Hunnam) has been let out of the slammer in Detroit and heads north to his parent’s remote farmhouse “near the border” for Thanksgiving. Google tells us Detroit is on the Canadian border, so to be crashing their car further north, Addison and Liza must have missed their turn.
But crash it they do. A deer is caught in headlights (!), and from nowhere our protagonists’ Lincoln, which had been cautiously nosing down an icy Michigan back road, catapults flamboyantly down a bank. As we contemplate that clearest hint yet that this might be a comedy – Car Crash Cinema! – there’s even a spoof product placement to admire: the marquee Towncar hubcap spins on a wheel idly, upside down in a frozen ditch.
They spent a lot of money on weather special effects, I should think. Expenditure that reveals itself in the most versatile digital snow I have ever seen: if there were an awards ceremony for snow effects only (you know, the sort of thing the Inuit Film and Television Academy probably has) then Deadfall would sweep the board. There is horizontal snow, vertical snow, floaty snow, snow flurries, misty snow, backlit snow, snow puffing up under wheel arches, blustery snow that gets in your face when you’re giving doleful looks. None but the Inuit would believe there are so many ways of depicting snow.
From there the action marches, Oates-like onwards (everyone seems to be out and about in this brutal Michigan blizzard!) Notwithstanding an absurd script and some stoutly mediocre supporting hands, the main billed actors play it dead straight. Even the production notes are po-faced:
“Questions about moral relativity, family, relationships and love and abuse are at the core of the film”.
I missed most of these, but was just as entertained by Deadfall‘s inadvertent comic interludes. Having watched her partner fling a very useful walkie talkie into a river without warning, Officer Becker storms after it, muttering “you’re such an asshole!”, a comment that may as well have been directed at screenwriter Zach Dean as having emanated from the script.
Unlike so many substandard motion pictures this one really is so bad it’s funny, as even Eric Bana seems to recognise by the final act. Depending on how you read it, then, Deadfall presents us with the conundrum of contemporary cinema: either they don’t make movies like this anymore, or they just seem to make movies like this all the time these days.
Director: Stefan Ruzowitzky
Writer: Zach Dean
Stars: Eric Bana, Olivia Wilde, Charlie Hunnam
Runtime: 95 min