Reviewed at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival
J Blakeson's The Disappearance of Alice Creed is so antsy to get going, they don't even bother with an opening title; they don't want to waste a frame that can't be spent building tension. The opening sequence is a dread-filled masterwork, in which Danny (Martin Compston) and Vic (Eddie Marsan) coldly and efficiently buying supplies and preparing for a kidnapping--lining a van, sound-proofing a bedroom, drilling in extra locks, attaching the bed frame to the floor. There's not a word spoken--it's all disturbing sound effects and antsy music (Marc Canham's score is a jittery corker) until one line of dialogue ("Okay") and then... the screaming. Oh, the screaming.
The first act of the picture is lean, mean, tight-fisted filmmaking--briskly paced and cold-blooded. There are exactly three characters in it: Danny, Vic, and the object of their crime, Alice Creed (Gemma Arterton), who they're holding for a $2 million ransom from her wealthy family. We only get this side of the story--there are no scared parents or level-headed cops--and Blakeson doesn't even follow Vic out of the apartment when he leaves to communicate with the family. The film confines itself to its single, claustrophobic location and squeezes it like a vise.
We're drawn in to that first act, it's so taut and slick and mysterious. Modern audiences may be reminded of Reservoir Dogs, but it's even closer to Hitchcock's Rope
--particularly in a later sequence (involving the quick recovery of a telltale clue) which evenly mixes fast, snug close-ups with a giddy shot of black humor. But then, about a third of the way in, it takes a turn that you're not sure is a smart move; it threatens to break the heightened mood. That left turn ends up working, but then there's another twist some time later that feels arbitrary, and like a bit of a cheat as well. It's as though information has been withheld solely for the sake of a shock moment--a twist for twist's sake.
The film keeps its momentum, thanks in no small part to the trio of actors that inhabit it. Marsan (previously seen in Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky and Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes) is an actor whose face seems to default into a sneer; this is a muscular performance, all spittle-spraying impatience and cold, dead eyes. As his younger and edgier accomplice, Compston is also quite good; he's a bit of a cipher at first, but that ends up being the correct starting note for his modulated, enigmatic performance. And Arterton (best known on this side of the pond for her turn as "Strawberry Fields" in Quantum of Solace), in the film's most physically taxing role, is outstanding; she thinks well on her feet and works each moment all the way through, giving a tough, raw-edged, smeary-eyed performance.
But Blakeson ultimately lets the clever twists take over--he keeps spinning the narrative top until we're weary of chasing it. His script follows the logic and finds the action, but (with the exception of a flash of psychological meat in the trio's last scene together) there's little of the brute force of those opening sections. The Disappearance of Alice Creed is impressively made, and has its share of nasty thrills and jumpy winces. But it turns into a kind of bloodless thrill machine, a jack in the box that expects you to keep winding it up and playing it out.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.