Much like the two kidnappers featured in the film, writer/director J Blakeson's debut thriller, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, is methodical, efficient, and imbued with a frightening yet fragile confidence that begins to crack under too much pressure. A few memorable twists and a handful of skillfully executed suspense sequences reveal that first-time feature filmmaker Blakeson has a particularly firm grasp on the mechanics of the thriller, getting the most out of a claustrophobic set through creative editing and cinematography, and only faltering once the action opens up and the deceptions start to snowball. But while it's the details that prevent The Disappearance of Alice Creed from achieving standout status -- and a workmanlike adherence to convention that keeps it from transcending the genre -- there's still enough tension to keep genre fans nibbling on their fingernails, and to keep everyone else hanging around to see just how it all plays out.
Vic (Eddie Marsan) and Danny (Martin Compston) are two kidnappers planning the perfect crime. After soundproofing a small apartment and outfitting a bed with restraints, they snatch Alice Creed (Gemma Arterton) off the street and lock her up tight, snapping a series of pictures and threatening to kill the girl if her father doesn't immediately pay a two-million-pound ransom. But just when it seems as if everything is going according to plan, Alice gains the upper hand over one of her abductors and allegiances start to shift. The closer it gets to the payoff, the more tensions in the small apartment begin to simmer, and as the deceptions and double-crosses start to multiply, it isn't quite clear who's calling the shots, or who's going to walk away with the cash.
In the past few years, Eddie Marsan has been in particularly high demand in everything from high-profile Hollywood fare (Miami Vice, Hancock, Sherlock Holmes) to prestigious BBC productions (Criminal Justice, Red Riding) and critically acclaimed indies (Happy-Go-Lucky) -- and for good reason. A rare performer capable of emitting vulnerability and menace in equal measure (and occasionally within the same scene), Marsan is the malevolent heart that keeps the tension in The Disappearance of Alice Creed pumping, even after the predictability factor has come into play. Volatile, suspicious, and unceasingly controlling, his character is the driving force in the film, and Marsan attacks the performance with relish, stopping just shy of scenery chewing as he helps to compensate for the passable yet notably less dynamic performances from his two co-stars.
Still, the fact that Marsan is the most watchable actor in The Disappearance of Alice Creed will likely come as no surprise to movie fans who have been tracking his unique ascent; it's the emergence of J Blakeson as a director with a solid eye for detail that will really have audiences talking. Tightly structured and carefully constructed, his screenplay skillfully reveals most of the details through action rather than dialogue -- a creative approach that gives the many twists in the film a palpable sense of urgency, and helps to underscore the widening chasm between the two criminal protagonists. As a director, Blakeson impresses with his masterful pacing; his ability to construct highly effective suspense sequences seems almost innate. By building his plot around the growing tensions and fluctuating power shifts among the three key characters and keeping our heart rates up through clever use of such simple MacGuffins as a bullet casing and a cell phone, Blakeson adapts his knowledge of genre tropes into a finely tuned working model that hints at the bigger and better things the director may have in store for audiences in the very near future. Philipp Blaubach's stark cinematography and Sally Black's richly textured art direction combine to give the film an elegant aura of moral decay, while Mark Eckersley's skillful editing keeps tension levels taut throughout.
No one is likely to walk out of The Disappearance of Alice Creed claiming that Blakeson reinvented the thriller genre, though few would argue that was even his goal in the first place. For emerging filmmakers, the thriller genre can be an ideal avenue for displaying their talents behind the camera, and there's little question that Blakeson is a gifted young director even though he's adhering to convention. Perhaps when Blakeson decides to stop perfecting standard tropes and strives to break new ground, we'll get a film that's worthy of high praise rather than polite applause.