Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde in "Deadfall." (Jonathan Wenk, Magnolia…)
Like the deer in the headlights that opens the thriller "Deadfall," this is a film about the tragic consequences of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bad roads, bad weather, bad family dynamics are equally problematic. And when Olivia Wilde's lost girl Liza says, "You don't want to take me home," well, that should not be taken lightly.
Honestly, the deer was the lucky one. He didn't have to suffer through what happens next.
Austrian filmmaker Stefan Ruzowitzky, who won a foreign-language Oscar in 2008 for "The Counterfeiters," another dark morality tale, has a keen eye for the scenic possibilities of the snowy rural outpost of upper Michigan where the film is set. It is the screenplay's strangely schizophrenic sensibility that's harder to understand.
Written by first-timer Zach Dean, the premise — heist gone bad, desperate fugitives, damaged families, a surreal Thanksgiving dinner — was packed with potential. Some of the language is smart, sinister and ironic in just the right ways, particularly when Addison, Eric Bana's serial-killing mastermind, delivers it. In other cases, the dialogue is so ludicrously off — either unnecessary, or unnecessarily misogynistic if a cop is doing the talking — that it's hard to believe the same person wrote it. Maybe it's a case of taking studio notes too literally or the director's involvement in revising?
Regardless, the action begins with a casino heist that has gone south, so Addison and Liza, the brother-and-sister act that pulled if off, head north toward the Canadian border. The deer and icy roads end the run, as well as the life of the driver and a state trooper, who happens upon the crash. Addison and Liza set off on foot wearing formal wear (a high-end casino, I guess) in blizzard conditions and in opposite directions with the hope that at least one of them will get away.
You know from the few moments we observe these two in the car, with Liza in a glittery barely there, that something is off about the relationship. Theirs is the most twisted of the three families under the microscope, colored by hints of incest and murder. Better, but not by much, is the situation of newly paroled, former boxing champ Jay (Charlie Hunnam). On his first day out, he has managed to get into a new mess that has put him on the run too. Given his fugitive state, why he decided to drop by and see Mom (Sissy Spacek) and risk tangling with estranged Dad (Kris Kristofferson) over Thanksgiving dinner is a mystery. How he ends up with Liza in his car, then his life, less so.
The third family is a sugary-sweet deputy sheriff named Hanna (Kate Mara) and her bully of a dad, Becker (Treat Williams), who is also her boss. If there's a "weaker sex" insult Becker can hurl her way, he will do it. Even when one of his other deputies is dying at his feet, Becker takes a moment to cut his daughter down. By the time the film gets to the final showdown, you'll want to kill him if Addison doesn't.
There are some exciting snowmobile chase scenes and a lot of bodies piling up with death coming in sometimes inventive ways. But exploring family dynamics are at the heart of this tale. Addison, Liza and Jay are all off on their life-changing journeys. At times it is riveting stuff and at times ridiculous.
Wilde and Hunnam make a good pair of damaged souls falling in love. But Bana's villain is the standout. Addison is such a sick mix of brutality and tenderness that he keeps you guessing. The one certainty is that things will get only worse.
When the dialogue goes bad, the harsh beauty of this cold, desolate country proves a decent distraction. Director of photography Shane Hurlbut, a veteran of action films such as 2009's gritty "Terminator Salvation," gets to step back and let us enjoy the view, at least until Addison arrives to muck things up. And really, if you want to show blood in the best light, there is no better showcase than newly fallen snow glistening under the sun.
The quintessential Thanksgiving dinner that June (Spacek) has so lovingly prepared for the full house of problems she didn't invite is not unlike many history-laden holiday meals. Unfortunately neither the good spread, nor the good work of Bana, Wilde and Hunnam are enough to save the day. The tragedy is that "Deadfall" had real possibility, but by the time June is passing around the pie, you'll be hard-pressed to care.
MPAA rating: R for strong violence, language and sexuality
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: At Sundance Sunset Cinema, West Hollywood
PHOTOS AND MORE
VIDEO: Highlights from the Envelope Screening Series
The Envelope: Awards Insider
PHOTOS: NC-17 movies: Ratings explained