A highly satisfying Western-cum-noir in the old tradition, “Deadfall” is alive in ways that are all too rare among American movies. Director Stefan Ruzowitzky seems to be channeling a smidgen of noir giant Raoul Walsh (“High Sierra”) while following the desperate attempts of a brother-sister pair (Eric Bana, Olivia Wilde) to reach Canada with casino-pilfered banknote booty in tow. Vivid action in snow-covered climes, sharp widescreen cinematography and a stellar cast — including Sissy Spacek, Treat Williams, Kris Kristofferson and Kate Mara as a “Fargo”-esque female sheriff — combine to make the pic a vibrant commercial and critical property for Magnolia.
Together with first-time screenwriter Zach Dean, Ruzowitzky (an Oscar winner for his Austrian pic “The Counterfeiters”) focuses on strained family relations, further distinguishing a film that works plenty well in purely action-oriented terms. Crashing their car in a northern Michigan snowdrift while trying to elude police pursuit, borderline-incestuous sibling thieves Addison (Bana) and Liza (Wilde) get away by shooting a state trooper to death — although they still have each other to deal with.
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Reluctantly agreeing with her brother’s suggestion that they separate on the trek north (on foot, and in blizzard conditions, yet), Liza meets and soon falls into a motel bed with young ex-con and former Olympic boxer Jay (Charlie Hunnam), who’s en route to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of his sixtysomething parents, June and Chet (Spacek and Kristofferson), neither one pleased with the kid’s recent choices. Meantime, alerted to the cop’s murder, a young distaff sheriff (Mara) pursues the case, even though her sexist commanding officer (Williams) is patently disapproving of professional women, never mind that he’s also her father.
Ruzowitzky proves equally adept with conversational scenes and action sequences, the early car crash and an intense snowmobile chase being only two of several cinematic eye-poppers. The pulpy but substantive pic benefits greatly from exceptional acting across the board, with relative newcomer Hunnam, muscular and handsome, holding his own among more experienced thesps. The film’s lack of irony is another unique feature, giving it more in common with ’40s and ’50s Hollywood genre pics than with more recent American fare; the climax at the comfy home of June and Chet recalls William Wyler’s “Desperate Hours.”
Acting-wise, Bana expertly essays a jokester villain who’s made more complicated by psychological and physical vulnerabilities. Mara is terrifically likable in the role of an intrepid young cop, and Spacek’s scenes with Kristofferson convey a tender familiarity.
On balance, tech credits are superb, with Shane Hurlbut’s celluloid work — emitting a bluish-black, slightly spectral glow in night scenes — a particular standout.