The Disappearance of Alice Creed, unveiled a year ago in Toronto, is a grim, toxic, psychological British thriller, brimming with surprises, that always manages to be quite a bit more than it appears on the surface.
Two men—one hard and middle-aged, the other soft and dangerously appealing, barely into his 20s—elaborately plan and meticulously execute the kidnapping of the girl in the title, a millionaire’s daughter, dragging her into a van with a bag over her head on a street in broad daylight.
From the tightly staged opening setup (a shopping spree, buying a drill, a mattress and other supplies; assembling a makeshift bed in a dark, abandoned, soundproof flat that will be their victim’s jail cell) to the final harrowing payoff, the film is at first reminiscent of the old “rich girl falls in love with the thug who exploits and degrades her” theme in everything from William Faulkner’s lurid Sanctuary (filmed twice, with both Miriam Hopkins and Lee Remick as the victims) to the vastly sleazier 1948 scandal No Orchids for Miss Blandish, and culminating in the real-life saga of Patty Hearst.
The difference is that this one doesn’t just explore the desperate, terrifying and punishing circumstances that often lead kidnap victims of both sexes to become emotionally and physically drawn to their captors in bizarre ways society cannot understand. It also examines the psychological terrain of the eccentric kidnappers more than the girl they abduct—a pretty hysterical piece of work herself.
The older man is Vic (Eddie Marsan, fresh from his success in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky)—slick, professional and ruthless, covering every track. His boyish accomplice is Danny (Martin Compston), who thinks too much, worries about the girl, throws up from fear and stress and drinks too much to steady his nerves. They met in prison, where the older man provided protection, and the disappearance of Alice Creed is their master plan that leads to Easy Street.
Alice (Gemma Arterton)—bound, gagged and tied like a hog headed for the slaughterhouse—is a damsel in dire distress, but hardly the innocent we’ve been led to believe. Her humiliation and terror pale compared to the way she erupts when Danny removes her blindfold and she discovers the intricate sham behind the masquerade: Danny is her boyfriend, who is planning to use the ransom money to finance their future together. Like someone in a dark room groping to see in sudden sunlight, Alice barely has time to adjust to one shock when it’s time for another twist: Danny may be the one she loves, but he and Vic are lovers, too!
Thinking fast, Alice conjures up her own plan—to double-cross them both and keep her own ransom money. Grabbing an opportunity to turn the tables on Danny while he’s stark naked and vulnerable, she almost succeeds, but this tightly wound, carefully made “Brit noir” has more detours ahead.
I won’t reveal how it all ends, but I will tell you how powerless we are to stop the violence that ensues when three twisted power players hell-bent on survival make the fatal mistake of underestimating each other.
Director J Blakeson, in an exciting feature film debut, assembles the details of his own screenplay like the pieces of a complex jigsaw puzzle. Even after the three characters reveal their secrets, he keeps the audience guessing.
The timing of each scene is perfect, the actors splendid. Eddie Marsan eschews his talent for comedy in a nasty role that is rigid, remorseless yet sympathetic. Arterton, a rising star of the London stage, has as many keys to her personality as expressions. And Compston delivers a compelling portrait of unstable frailty lurking behind seductive charm. A pulsating revelation on many levels at once.
Rex Reed is the movie critic for the New York Observer.