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December 23, 2012

If Die Hard can qualify as one of the great Christmas movies, then surely there’s room in the Thanksgiving canon for Deadfall. Like Thanksgiving, it’s a time for families to come together and come to terms with their fractious relationships. And what familial relationships are more fractious than those with fathers: the ones who hurt us; who dismiss us; who we disappoint; who we rebel against; and who we become. November in rural Michigan is cold and dark, and it’s important to find people you can depend on to help make it through.

The film starts with a bang: a sedan hits something one a snowy road and flips itself over a snowbank. The driver is killed on impact, but two people survive. Addison (Eric Bana) and Liza (Olivia Wilde) crawl from the wreckage, gathering up the money the trio just robbed from a tribal casino, in time for Addison to kill a state trooper who stops to investigate. The two split up to try and find their own ways across the border into Canada — probably more difficult from central Michigan than the writer seems to think.

Addison makes his way through the woods, but Liza gets better results staying on a rural route and pulling over a pickup truck driven by Jay Mills (Charlie Hunnam). Jay is an Olympic-class boxer who just got out of jail for throwing a pro fight, only to severely injure one of his old acquaintances. He’s heading to the farmhouse where his parents, June (Sissy Spacek) and Chet (Kris Kristofferson) live to figure out what to do next.

Meanwhile, the county sheriff (Treat Williams) has turned out all hands to search for the trooper’s murderer. Well, almost all hands; Hanna Becker (Kate Mara) is left behind by the cloyingly sexist sherriff who also happens to be her father. Fate, though, seems to have other plans for her. Time and again she takes seemingly unrelated calls at the station that throw her right into the middle of the action.

There are the inevitable comparisons drawn to Fargo that come out whenever there’s a dead body in a movie and it’s snowing; they are, of course, wrong. This movie is not Fargo, but this time it’s closer than most, and it’s a well-made, tense thriller in its own right. But it’s not marked by the same darkly playful spirit that suffuses all of the Coen brothers’ best films, and it shouldn’t be. Zach Dean’s script stands on its own; casting the subtle aspersions that he’s merely derivative of Joel and Ethan Coen is unfair to everyone involved.

The core of the film is held together by Liza and Addison, even as they travel in different directions both physically and emotionally. We get just enough about their past to understand this story comes as the culminating episode of a long history, but not so much as to dwell on it melodramatically. Wilde plots Liza’s arc meticulously, making her character develop slowly but clearly. And Bana is masterfully effective as Addison; his calmly, creepily domineering behavior at the Thanksgiving table has been done before, but Bana’s version is among the best.

It’s a shame that Deadfall isn’t getting much of a theatrical release; Stefan Ruzowitzky comes up with some beautifully expansive shots of the frozen landscape that look bleakly gorgeous on the big screen. But as it’s already available streaming you can easily catch it in your own home, where the most interesting parts should still show up just fine.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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