Atypical genre plotting and some absolutely delicious twists feed British kidnapping thriller The Disappearance of Alice Creed, the solid and engaging feature directorial debut of J Blakeson. Plenty of movies have covered this narrative terrain before, but few in recent memory with as streamlined a sense of tension-soaked purpose.
The Disappearance of Alice Creed is a tightly drawn “three-hander,” with a deceptively simple plot. Planning to make a mint on a ransom-and-exchange scheme, ex-con kidnappers Vic (Eddie Marsan) and Danny (Martin Compston) snatch Alice (Gemma Arterton), a young woman estranged from her wealthy businessman father. Despite having set up a secluded safe house and seemingly left nothing to chance, Vic and Danny — the latter the younger and more nervous of the two, the former powered by a snarling, steely conviction — soon find their plans upended. Though scared witless, Alice isn’t about to let her captors just use her as capital, but neither is the film merely some prodding feminist revenge tract.
From the outset, it’s clear that Blakeson’s film won’t kowtow to genre convention. The movie opens with an intriguing, dialogue-free, five-minute prep sequence in which Danny and Vic methodically set up shop — buying a drill, a mattress and other supplies; lining the inside of a windowless van with plastic; assembling a bed for the mattress; and stapling foam
insulation and plywood board to the walls and windows of the bedroom that will serve as Alice’s quarters of confinement. When the actual kidnapping takes place, it’s similarly presented in dispassionate, matter-of-fact fashion, despite Alice’s kicks and screams. In fact, it’s 10 minutes into the film before either party utters a line, really.
Interestingly and admirably, Blakeson isn’t concerned with or particularly invested in repeatedly using Alice’s vulnerability to wring tension and unease from his audience. Yet neither does he shy away from it, as when a hooded Alice is stripped, given new clothes and handcuffed in spread-eagle fashion; Arterton arches her back in wild anxiety, which is a visceral and realistic depiction of primitive fear. Once some measure of chatting and an explication of the chain of events yet to unfold begins, though, the movie really hits its stride, fed in large part by the differences in age and gender, and the underlying but ever-shifting power dynamics therein. Without giving away the movie’s twists, it suffices to say that — both before the ransom money arrives, and after — Blakeson does a fantastic job of screwing with both his audience’s expectations and senses of identification, though always in ways rooted in character, and never in a manner that feels tawdry or false.
Given the quiet, steely verve of its set-up, it’s somewhat to be expected that the film’s energy eventually starts to flag a bit. And it would have been interesting — once the film opens up a bit from its quite theatrical staging, and gets to stretch its legs some in its final act — for an outside character or two to force the hand of those grappling for control. But the performances here are gripping, and The Disappearance of Alice Creed‘s commitment to character-driven minimalism makes it a standout genre entry in the late summer indie sweepstakes. For more information, click here. (Anchor Bay, R, 100 minutes)