In the era of global trade and homeland security, teeming cities and bustling airports, the mythic frontier so central to the Hollywood western is a darn hard place to locate. That isn’t stopping neophyte U.S. screenwriter Zach Dean and Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky, however: For their thriller Deadfall, they have decided that an outlaw can go on the lam dramatically somewhere in the backwoods of Michigan, far north enough that the Canadian border promises freedom and American Thanksgiving delivers blizzards.
Apparently unaware of the existence of extradition treaties, Addison (Eric Bana) and his sister, Liza (Olivia Wilde), are headed for Canada with bags of banknotes, the proceeds of a casino robbery, when their car goes off an icy road. Addison, who is something of a Southern gentleman, has to politely shoot the trooper who comes to their aid and the siblings split up to avoid detection.
Addison continues on an increasingly murderous run through the snowy woods, pursued by a posse of local lawmen who ride snowmobiles instead of horses. Their numbers include Hanna (Kate Mara), a dedicated female officer who can’t get the respect she deserves from her hard-ass father, the sheriff (Treat Williams). Meanwhile, the fetching Liza hitches a ride with a young boxer named Jay (Charlie Hunnam), who is recently released from jail and on his way home to confront the father he disappointed. The boxer and his unlikely date arrive at his parents’ old farmhouse just in time for Thanksgiving and there, the three stories and the three families violently collide.
Dean and Ruzowitzky want both inexorably tightening plot and keen psychology here, and they can’t always have it both ways. Of course, the intersection of the three stories requires remarkable coincidences and, while clever, the effect is not always taut enough that viewers can ignore the contrivances, especially as we head toward the increasingly predictable encounter at the farmhouse.
Meanwhile, the psychology is uneven: Hanna’s and Jay’s estrangement from their unbending fathers is only slightly harder-edged than the sentimental stuff of made-for-TV movies, but the odd relationship between the infantalized Liza and the charmingly psychopathic Addison is much more interesting. There’s a backstory here that remains sketchy enough to offer tantalizing glimpses rather than forced explanations of how two farm kids from Alabama wound up robbing casinos in Michigan. (This snowy film, by the way, was filmed in Quebec.)
Psychopathy is a rather obvious contemporary explanation of criminality: What is admirable about Bana’s performance is not so much the way he produces a charming crazy as the way he convincingly reproduces a classic outlaw. Rescuing women and children as he kills troopers, he’s an impenetrable tough guy – when he loses a finger in a fight, he cauterizes the wound on a burning-hot snowmobile engine – with his own peculiar moral compass.
As his sister, Wilde is also effective in portraying the woman who is emerging from the abused child whom Addison has lashed to him with a protective love of incestuous intensity.
Solid performances from veterans Sissy Spacek and Kris Kristofferson as Jay’s parents, and Treat Williams as the sheriff, anchor the older generation, but the characters do tend to conform to stereotypes of hard, unforgiving men and loving, patient women.
Bana’s Addison neatly manages the trick of raising type up to archetype: In Deadfall, he’s the one guy who has found the new frontier.