With only three actors, and the majority of the film set in a two-room flat, J Blakeson's lean new crime thriller could have been conceived for the stage. One might even mistake The Disappearance of Alice Creed for a lesser example of playwright Martin McDonagh's hardboiled, literate stage violence, populated by a trio of untrustworthy, self-interested, only marginally sympathetic characters.
The difference is that Blakeson -- despite his screenwriting resume -- is really a filmmaker first and a writer second. Words and story are of less importance here than his ability to construct visually gripping sequences within this simple environment.
The first 10 minutes of the film are nearly wordless, a deftly shot and edited montage following Vic (Eddie Marsan) and Danny (Martin Compston), two ex-cons readying themselves to kidnap the titular Alice (Gemma Arterton) for a hefty ransom. Blakeson whisks us through their meticulous preparations: They soundproof walls, install extra locks, set up the bed to tie down their prisoner. And after many artfully photographed turns of many screws, they track down Alice and toss her, bound and gagged, in the back of a van. Once back at the safe house, she's stripped and tied spread-eagle to the bed -- all with barely a word spoken by anyone, apart from her muffled screams.
Blakeson can sometimes be a little too in love with his visual skills; he'll telegraph later plot developments by focusing his lens meaningfully on telltale details. In Chekov's famous scenario about the onstage gun and the end of the story, Blakeson is the kind of director who'd add a flashing neon sign pointing out the pistol.
And in fact the film's true heart is revealed in that opening sequence. Not in the skilled economy of the filmmaking, but rather in the blunt and frightening helplessness conveyed by the matter-of-fact way Blakeson shoots Arterton's nude body bound to the bed. Even though her captors eventually re-attire her in a track suit and don't do anything but take pictures for ransom purposes, the queasy mix of titillation and violence is textbook exploitation cinema. And no matter how high the production values, that's essentially what Alice Creed boils down to.
On those terms, though, the film is a modest success, a high-minded but trashy blend of sex, violence and revenge, with enough uneasy alliances and betrayals to require a scorecard to keep track of who's trying to put one over on whom at any given moment.
Blakeson's twists and role reversals do get excessive in the middle third, as he tries a little too hard to obscure which character is most likely to emerge from the pack with the best chance at scoring the two-million-pound ransom.
But a skilled cast is Blakeson's greatest asset in his attempt to elevate his material above its pulpy limitations. All three are better actors than this sort of movie might call for -- particularly the gruff, scowling Eddie Marsan -- and when the script hits a couple of its more inventive twists, they take their characters into surprisingly complex and subtle places. As the tale reaches its oddly flat conclusion -- the director inexplicably chooses this moment to ditch the twists and play things fairly straight -- it's these performances, once again nearly wordless in the film's waning moments, that make the exercise worthwhile.