Although it continually complicates its basic narrative setup (two men kidnap a young woman, keep her handcuffed to a bed, and make plans to extract a ransom from her wealthy father), J Blakeson’s The Disappearance of Alice Creed has enough of the crudely exploitative to make it feel like a decisively unwholesome entertainment. And yet, until its final quarter, and through all the scenes of Gemma Arterton being stripped naked and photographed, pissing into a watering can held by one of her captors or simply screaming and crying, the film is an entertainment, marked by Blakeson’s ability to build sustainable tension out of seemingly static situations and enlivened by his taste for a deadpan black humor.
“I don’t want a narrative,” one of the kidnappers, Vic (a superb Eddie Marsan), tells Alice (Arterton) as she babbles into his camera the circumstances of her abduction when she’s supposed to simply tell her father to give the men their money, but a narrative is exactly what Blakeson gives us, one that quickly gets away from the plans scripted by Vic and his young partner Danny (Martin Compston). With the action confined to a single apartment building for the bulk of the movie, the writer-director ladles out his stock of twists and reversals at just the right intervals to maintain a propulsive narrative momentum. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that Danny has an intimate involvement with both Vic and Alice, unsuspected by the other at the beginning of the film, a set of circumstances that leads to some comically tense scenes—such as Danny’s unsuccessful attempts to flush a bullet down a toilet—as the younger man tries to manipulate both parties.
But just as the film’s characters find their hold over their own narrative to be rather tentative, so too does Blakeson, and when he removes his trio from the single setting of the apartment and amps up the reversals, the plotting begins to feel labored and more than a tad predictable. The result is a long anti-climax that replaces the squeamish pleasures of the earlier scenes with a repellant cynicism. While previously Blakeson’s nihilistic orientation had been held in check by a black humor, a play with the reversal of master and servant roles (as when Danny winds up chained bare-assed to the bed) and above all by the possibility of actual love (Vic’s for Danny) amid all the mercenary motives, the ending is given to a series of bloody double-crosses that grants the director free reign to revel in the worst tendencies of human nature. Lingering over corpses, trying to turn a cynical shocker into a sanguinary tragedy, Blakeson fails to discern a larger purpose behind these events, leaving earlier shots such as a close-up of Alice’s weeping face while we hear the sound of her urine splashing against the plastic body of a makeshift catheter, the meaningless enduring images of a half-skillful exercise in misanthropy.