“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12: 19-21)
“Dead Man Down” is a very violent movie where the main characters wonder aloud if they will feel satisfied even after their retribution. Well, whether or not their characters do, we, as viewers, sure don’t.
We don’t learn this at first – the story is not told linearly – but Victor (Colin Farrell) is a Hungarian immigrant to the United States, who moved here with his wife and young daughter to find work as an engineer. But the apartment building where they were living was targeted for takeover by a local drug gang, who warned them to move, and when they didn’t, well, they were just eliminated. Except Victor barely survived, and decided to assuage his grief by infiltrating the gang.
He seems to have one real friend in the world, his wife’s uncle, who’s advising him about weapons and spyware, because of their shared military background (back in the “old country”), but his uncle is also starting to ask Victor why he’s hesitated for two years to “pull the trigger” on his retribution – is it because he’s afraid that he will still feel empty afterwards?
Meanwhile, while Victor is standing on the little concrete patio of his high-rise, he notices a young woman shyly waving to him in the apartment across the way. Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), it turns out, is as wounded and jaded as he is, because she was rammed by a drunk driver, and despite the surgeons’ best efforts, her face is still disfigured. She too wants revenge, and eventually she asks Victor to deliver it for her. In fact, after she’s followed him and witnessed some of his retributive skills, she threatens him with exposure if he doesn’t comply with her hateful wish.
Victor finds himself torn, because it’s one thing to satisfy your own grudge, but it’s quite another to get involved in someone else’s. He also finds himself feeling something other than bloodthirstiness when he is around Beatrice. He’s stunned that she completely accepts everything about him. He’s also begun to develop a real friendship with one of the gang guys, and he’s starting to feel ambivalent about his meticulous plan to eliminate him.
OK, at this point, we have several plot choices: 1) have Victor and Beatrice fall in love and decide to run off together and just forget the whole vengeance thing; 2) have Victor’s change of heart begin to transform Beatrice, but also become a fatal hesitancy for Victor, and whatever promise their relationship might have held is lost in the crossfire; 3) have Beatrice begin to transform Victor, but he still complies with her original request, leaving them both conflicted; 4) have Victor decide to hurt the drunk driver for Beatrice’s sake, but not kill him, which leaves Beatrice to decide how much she’s going to encourage Victor to go through with his calculated slaughter; or 5) have Victor start to soften, but his complicated plot to eliminate gang members one by one begins to develop a momentum all its own which not even he can stop.
There are other variations, of course, but you get the idea that this thing is much more likely to end badly than with any kind of win/win. Yes, Terence Howard as Alphonse, the gang leader, is a commanding presence, as always, as is Noomi Rapace, even with her rapacious attitude. But the original fear which the main characters express in “Dead Man Down” is strangely prophetic: This one is not nearly satisfying as it might have been.
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.