Professional criminals often traverse a specific cinematic universe directly beneath “civilized” society, operating quietly and smoothly to subvert the institutions of law and stay anonymous. They are often silent men and women gliding through tight spaces and dangerous scenarios with an effortless precision that marks them as craftsmen, only overlapping with regular citizenry when absolutely necessary. In the action films of Howard Hawks, Michael Mann, and Johnnie To, these characters are mechanical entities that bring a distinct visual poetry to an exotic, often strangely evocative underworld. Precise movement and timing remain paramount to the success of their criminal operations, and any deviation from the plan usually foreshadows physical and ideological destruction.
The no-nonsense, wordless opening chapter of The Disappearance of Alice Creed suggests a genre space inhabited by such iconic characters, as two menacing men prepare for what looks like a kidnapping. Vic (Eddie Marsan) and Danny (Martin Compston) shop for rope, power tools, and plastic bags, then strip down a single bedroom apartment, boarding up the windows, drilling the bed to the floor, and inserting an army of locks on the metal door. Director J Blakeson puts an emphasis on objects lined up in rows, including a knife, a gun, a gag, hacksaw, and handcuffs, all perfectly positioned to establish a timeline of criminal activity. These tools of the trade are meant to replace words in scenes of conflict and execution, becoming extensions of both the character's intent and capability of violence. The excellent montage crescendos with the said kidnapping occurring mostly off screen, a lightening-quick snatch-and-grab that nets the men their victim, a beautiful young woman named Alice Creed (Gemma Arterton). This is economic filmmaking at its finest, and signifies a thriller hell bent on stripping away the fat of genre conventions to reveal the core elements at play.
Unfortunately, the film almost immediately loses its toughness and grit as soon as the three characters start talking. Vic's bombast quickly grows stale and Danny's meekness almost immediately signals deceptive intent. Their seemingly simple plan, hatched by Vic to ransom off Alice for her father's money, begins to go sideways as the true intentions of each character comes into focus. Loyalties and allegiances flip upside down, and their once meticulous professionalism turns into a convoluted mess of misconceptions and betrayals. Blakeson shoots for neo-noir, subverting the role of the femme fatale much like Kathryn Bigelow did more successfully in Blue Steel, but this shape-shifting archetype ends up falling flat through the sheer repetitive nature of the film's shoddy script.
As each character turns back and forth between friend and foe, the film becomes a shifty obsessive-compulsive bore, foreshadowing its twisty maneuvers far in advance. Even the restrained camera movements and hypnotic jump cuts, so beautifully introduced in the opening act, cycle through far too often and lose their power. The Disappearance of Alice Creed fails to live up to its stellar ambitions, but one can't fault a film for setting up the supposed professionalism of these criminals and then throwing them under the Shakespearean bus. But Blakeson never convincingly renders their tragic flaws and Achilles' heels within a palpable criminal landscape. These characters aren't just dumb; they're blind to the obvious plot elements smacking them in the face.
When the expected switcheroo/double cross comes to fruition in the third act, only the cipher Alice transcends the ridiculous pacing and escapes a worthy ambiguous mystery. Left for most of the film tied up and bound, Alice finally gets a voice and some physical strength, revealing her captors true weaknesses and forcing them even deeper into the realm of cliché. It's as if Alice is a stand-in for the audience, a one-woman Greek chorus trying to comment on the failed melodrama unfolding before our very eyes. Invariably, the epic amounts of exposition and explanation suffocate the film's effective piercing mood, and The Disappearance of Alice Creed ends in completely the opposite fashion it began: inconsequentially. Vic and Danny, much like the film itself, turn out to be run of the mill felons posing as professionals, and like every bad con, it's not hard to spot a sheep in wolf's clothing.
The Disappearance of Alice Creed is presented in a crisp 1080p transfer that illuminates the film's cramped sense of space and dark color schemes. Most of the story takes place in one dank apartment, a place illuminated by artificial light and covered in dark shades of paint. The dark blue soundproofing material, the sterilized bathroom, and most importantly the yellow fluorescents stand out, complementing the character's crippling moments of indecision. During some of the darker sequences shadow delineation suffers greatly, as objects and costumes in black and blue lose texture and depth. The sound design works best when the ambient noises of each space create suspense and dominate the scene. Unfortunately, a few of the dialogue sequences overlap lines and become muddled during tense interactions.
Aside from the energetic and passionate audio commentary by writer-director J Blakeson, who goes to great lengths to deconstruct each scene from a directing point of view (especially the killer opening), there's nothing to sneeze at on this disc. The segment of deleted scenes and outtakes only reaffirms the film's weakness with dialogue-driven moments, adding even more exposition to a few key moments that were some of the few restrained character interactions. The storyboard featurette might be good for an introductory film production class, but that's about how deep the side-by-side comparisons go. A theatrical trailer is also included.
Neo-noirs should be shifty, but The Disappearance of Alice Creed and its almost manic dependence on story twists pushes the obsessive-compulsive contortions of character and plot to a whole new level.