It's common for film sites to do some kind of "career advice" column where they analyze a Hollywood star's trajectory and try to figure out what kinds of roles the actor should or shouldn't be doing. Will and I used to do this for The Projector, so I understand the impulse: You see a career that maybe isn't going as well as it should, and you want to offer some tips. It comes from a good place, but, really, it's a completely misguided endeavor. When we write these columns, we're assuming so many things: that we know better than the star; that the things we think they should be doing is what they actually want to be doing; that Hollywood is a place where anybody can be in any movie they want. (We just assume that actors can pick through roles with the ease that you and I can walk through a grocery store, deciding what kind of bread we want to get.) It's easy for a film writer to say, "Hey, Gwyneth Paltrow ought to loosen up and do some comedies—she should do a Bridesmaids." It's a lot harder in the actual film industry where there are schedule conflicts, ego clashes, competing actors, and a thousand other complicated realities.
I thought about this all over again while watching Colin Farrell in Dead Man Down. It's an unsuccessfully gritty revenge-drama-cum-love-story that's nonetheless offbeat enough that you keep watching it in the hopes that it'll get better. It never really does, but it's always watchable, and a lot of that has to do with Farrell. This is a guy who's the perfect subject for a career-advice column. He's a good actor who never quite became the sort of breakout superstar that everyone expected 10 years ago. But as a viewer, I don't think I would have preferred a more traditional career for him. You would never tell any aspiring actor to follow Farrell's path, but it sure hasn't been boring.
In Dead Man Down, Farrell plays Victor, a Hungarian expat who works for a smooth-talking gangster named Alphonse (Terrence Howard). Someone is sending Alphonse cryptic messages that include portions of a ripped-up photograph and dire warnings about vengeance. What he doesn't know is that they're coming from Victor, whose wife and son were accidentally killed by the gangster's men two years ago. Assuming a new identity and infiltrating Alphonse's group, Victor is waiting for the perfect time to kill everyone involved in his family's murder.
This is nicely grimy pulp terrain, and it's directed by Niels Arden Oplev, the Dansh filmmaker who made the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Like that movie, Dead Man Down is utterly consumed with darkness and revenge. Victor doesn't just mourn his family; he obsessively watches a home movie of them projected on his wall in the way that only grieving movie characters do. (He also, naturally, has a room in his apartment where he has meticulously constructed the cliched "photo chart of the complete hierarchy of the bad guy's organization," complete with thumbtacks, string and Post-it notes.)
Victor's not the only grieving person, though. In the apartment directly across the street from him—they can see into each other's living room—there's a beautiful woman named Beatrice (Noomi Rapace from the Swedish Dragon Tattoo), whose face was scarred in a car accident. (She's kept the broken watch from the accident, running her fingers across its cracked face and exuding dramatic import.) Beatrice and Victor share meaningful glances from their separate apartments, but soon she enters his life—and not for the reason he expects. She has filmed him killing a man during his time in Alphonse's gang, and wants to blackmail him into killing the driver who left her disfigured.
If all of this sounds convoluted and cumbersome, your instincts are correct. As befitting its title, Dead Man Down is overrun with seriousness but also a bit generic: It's like every other lowlife crime film about the pointlessness of revenge, only with some extra thematic baggage about scarred souls and such.
And yet Farrell almost makes it worth seeing. In the past few years, Farrell has given some of his best performances in movies like Cassandra's Dream, In Bruges, Crazy Heart, The Way Back, and Seven Psychopaths, drawing on an ability to seem instantly empathetic and believable, whether he's in a comedy or a drama. (And even if the movie turned out not to be that good, like Total Recall or Horrible Bosses, he at least gave his all to the project.) That same sort of commitment goes a long way to helping Dead Man Down: His Victor may be a collection of "haunted antihero" tics, but Farrell's natural authenticity makes you look at the character before the conventionality. As in many of his recent roles, Farrell in Dead Man Down broods sublimely. Some of the cockiness of his early career has slipped away, and he's reached an age where he can convincingly play beaten-down men whose lives haven't worked out. It's not the only thing he could or should be doing, but he does it well.
Unfortunately for Farrell and his handlers, Dead Man Down isn't going to do that well commercially or critically. Its basic premise is too farfetched, and the movie doesn't have much going for it beyond a dark atmosphere and genuinely bizarre digressions. (There's a whole big thing about Tupperware.) And the supporting cast is a bunch of scene-chewers: Isabelle Huppert plays Beatrice's kooky, near-deaf mom; F. Murray Abraham digs into a Hungarian accent as Victor's one true friend; and Dominic Cooper does his usual bug-eyed intensity as another Alphonse minion. Dead Man Down seems to be at war with itself, trying to liven up smotheringly serious material with goofy asides and overacting.
Farrell doesn't embarrass himself. Maybe he knows that there isn't anything that fresh in here, but he gives himself completely to Victor's walking-wounded demeanor. I didn't like Dead Man Down, but I walked out appreciating Farrell's willingness to treat the role with repect. There are a hundred different pieces of career advice you could give the guy, but watching this movie I was reminded that, sometimes, actors make their choices based on reasons the rest of us will never understand. It's not our job: We should instead be focused on what they bring to the roles they do take, even when the movies aren't worthy of them.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.