"Heist" and "Kidnapping" movies are close cousins to one another. Both exploit the same vicarious thrill of watching criminals carrying out complex plans that slowly unravel. But while the theft of money or jewelry seems harmless enough, the theft of a human being is quite a different thing. The idea of being personally violated, tied up against your will, and threatened with death is simply unpleasant. Kidnapping stories tend to be rather grim, with characters who are unsympathetic. This is what brings complexity to the genre, since most people find it easier to identify with the victim rather than the petty criminals.
J Blakeson's The Disappearance of Alice Creed is no different in this regard. Vic (a fantastic Eddie Marsan) and Danny (Martin Compston) may not be complete monsters, but they remain far from likable throughout the film. Ex-cons who met in prison, the nervous pair kidnap pretty young Alice Creed (Gemma Arterton) in order to extort money from her rich daddy. Their plan is extraordinarily well crafted and executed with brutal efficiency. But no plan can predict human behavior, and this one begins to unravel once Alice refuses to play her role as victim and the true motives of one of the kidnappers is revealed.
What first-time director Blakeson does with this very familiar situation is cut it to the bone. Not only is there very little fat on this body, there's barely a skeleton. On paper, the script probably read as though it were a stage play. Three characters in one location trying to outwit one another. That's it. It's a restricted point of view with no police and no accomplices. Plot and character are revealed through carefully chosen dialogue that suggests meaning through context. Not that Blakeson needs words to get his point across. The film opens very effectively with a nearly six-minute sequence without a word being spoken. We just watch as Vic and Danny purchase supplies like rope and duct tape and go about the business of soundproofing a bedroom. It's a smart idea that plunges us right into the action. Blakeson does fine work throughout to make sure the film doesn't feel stagey. Scenes are cleverly broken up throughout the small apartment (which is stylishly designed for visual effect), and dialogue is always running counter to what the characters are really doing. Blakeson is masterful in controlling eyelines, so it is always clear which two of the three are glancing at each other in secret. Without this, the film would barely make sense.
The cast had to be good in order for this film to even have a chance at being competent, and luckily they're great. Eddie Marsan is one of those actors whose name might elude you, but you'll recognize him instantly. He's deserved lead roles like this one for years. Gemma Arterton has the toughest role, though. It requires the her to express humiliation and fear, and, with a scene in which Arterton has her pants pulled down and is made to urinate into a watering can, the line between pretending to be humiliated and scared and actually feeling that way has to be very thin. For the most part, Blakeson stays just on THIS side of exploitation, but the material is exploitative by its very nature.
Of course, there is a twist, and at least one other after that. Both are reasonably believable and surprising at the same time, but each begins to reduce Blakeson's initial set up from a hard-edged, blackly comic thriller into something a great deal more melodramatic. By the end of the film, Blakeson seems to have begun a new one with a whole new tone. It's unfortunate, since it would've been great to have seen the rest of the movie he started. Nevertheless, the film is a very fine debut from a filmmaker whose future work seems quite promising.
For a film with a rather small theatrical release, Anchor Bay has gone all out and produced an excellent DVD. With a 2.35:1 Aspect ratio and Dolby 5.1 soundtrack, the tech elements are superb. Shooting the film at that ratio was another smart decision as it makes a small-scaled/claustrophobic film seem visually bigger. Blakeson uses the full width of the frame to allow the viewer to see the whole space onscreen, to know just where the kitchen is in relation to the bedroom, and this helps to make the story more suspenseful.
Where the DVD really shines is in its extras. Two fairly lengthy deleted scenes, "Phones" and "Alice Gets the Gun," can be viewed alone or with audio commentary by director Blakeson. Both scenes are fine in their own right but also show how judicious Blakeson was about pacing the final result. In the body of the movie, each would feel indulgent, since neither is integral to the storytelling. Blakeson discusses this problem in the commentary, feeling torn between his desire to put all the good performances onscreen and making choices for the larger film.
Along with the commentary for these deleted scenes, Anchor Bay has also provided a feature-length commentary by Blakeson. This is a great track, especially for budding filmmakers considering making their own features. Blakeson discusses the obvious things (writing a script for a low-budget film by constricting it to one location and a handful of actors) as well as some that few filmmakers ever really discuss -- the choice to shoot the film using tripods and dollies instead of handheld in order to give it a bigger look. It's much more difficult to shoot a film in this manner and requires a great deal of pre-planning in order to get a decent result, but the difference is night and day. The "Storyboard to Film" comparison also included provides a glimpse at this meticulous planning.
Finally, we get a reel of outtakes -- your standard "cast party" blooper reel -- and the film's theatrical trailer. All in all, a very surprising number of extras for an effective low-budget thriller.