A claustrophobic thriller taking place in only a room or two lives and dies on the ability of a clever script to tightly wind its characters into knots. In that respect, the surprisingly kinked feature The Disappearance of Alice Creed succeeds. More than that, it excels as the leads give complicated and intense performances that manage to convey as often as conceal their thoughts. Each revelation is only half the story, and amazingly the twists hold up to scrutiny. Though it does suffer a bit from fatigue after a few too many right turns occur, it stands far above most of the supposed action films that fill the multiplex with empty sounds and pointless visuals. Here, the actors have no CGI to hide behind. There is little in the way of a soundtrack apart from ambient noise. We know nothing of our characters except what we see, and are forced to piece it together as we go. A refreshing approach.
Eddie Marsan and Martin Compston work silently to prepare a room. Nary a word passes for the first 10 minutes as they put up plywood, drywall, soundproof foam, extra locks, and eventually a bed. With no exposition, we are made well aware of what the preparations are for. In short order, we are introduced to the third and final member of our cast, as Gemma Arterton turns in an effective performance as Alice Creed, who is about to disappear. She is prepared in a way as methodical as the walls and locks of this room, as isolated from the world as the bottom of an ocean trench. The world shrinks to the room, to which everyone returns.
Marsan is not a big man, and played a rather mousy character in Vera Drake. Here, his character (Vic) is as immovable an object as a building; precise, almost scrupulous in the way he prepares for all eventualities. And he is ruthless in his guidance of Danny as he browbeats the kid into working with discipline. The stakes are high, as Alice has a wealthy father who promises a payoff of 2 million pounds. Alice is frightened, but sharp enough to realize that Vic’s discipline means she will likely die during her imprisonment, especially if she makes the slightest mistake.
That is where the description ends, as revealing anything more would ruin the rather clever directions The Disappearance of Alice Creed moves in. The goalposts are moved just often enough to keep the audience off balance, but not so often as to strain credulity. In this way, we are kept on a queasy back foot in terms of where the end will be. Odd behavior and small details are suggested, so the twists are not completely out of left field, but nonetheless are difficult to anticipate. The parts fit together neatly, yet each character holds a bit in reserve so there is always a bit of surprise left. The strangest character is Danny; even when his secrets are laid bare, we are still not entirely sure what his motivations were. All the better – this was a cleverly made trap, and I was glad to see almost none of it coming.
Eddie Marsan is one of the more gifted in the business, but in this feature he has made it clear he is a dangerous fucking actor. Intensity and insanity are common character traits in the movies, but this guy seems to chew the furniture thoughtfully. Arterton reveals herself as much more than a pretty face (usually obscured by computer graphics, anyway), and Compston is able to keep up with the veterans more or less. The director does an excellent job of allowing the script to guide the story and avoiding visual flourishes that would only lend unwelcome gloss. There are some reviews that complain about the graphic nature of the way Alice is treated and the humiliations she is subjected to. This is a movie about kidnapping – it should be unpleasant. There are no style points depicting this as a great way to make a living, the men are given no redeeming qualities, and Alice is a nearly helpless victim who withstands her humiliation and fear to nonetheless find an advantage. Better this than yet another overly stylized flick about assassins or thieves with a heart of gold or somesuch bullshit.
The best crime films handicap themselves by avoiding a false picture of luxury. The Friends of Eddie Coyle, for example, had as its protagonist a career thief who has only the clothes on his back to show for his labor. Danny and Vic likely have nothing to their names, and while this could be a payday, they are more likely to fail and still be forced to leave the country with pocket change to survive upon. A life of crime is by nature off the grid with very few people that you could likely depend upon. In this way, Alice Creed gets it quite right; this is made on the cheap for all the right reasons, and reflects the deep desperation of its characters. And the full screen degradation makes real and visceral what Alice is going through. Kidnapping is a global business that is growing, estimated at 12,000 to 25,000 per year with $500 million reported going to kidnappers. This is likely a low estimate.
While the film is at times an appropriately unpleasant experience, it is at heart a character study. Vic is intelligent and has an incendiary drive to perfect his first and last job. Danny is a question mark throughout, even unclear to himself what he really wants. In this sense, Compston’s portrayal of an unprincipled opportunist is spot on. And Alice Creed, the only person with an actual name, vacillates between object and survivalist, able to hold her extremely weak hand close enough to the chest to have a chance of escaping this ordeal alive.