Writing and directing a thriller about kidnapping is a little like being the hostage in question. Every path has been tried, every angle examined, every door and window checked for a way out. There's very little cinematic ground to cover that hasn't been mined to infertility by writers for decades: The hostage will either escape or die trying. The villains will either make a crucial mistake or live up to their ruthless threats. The victim's family will either trace the kidnappers' calls or else be left in the dark. Etc., etc. It's a binary little subgenre that relies almost entirely on an either/or type of set-up for its tension. Writer-director J. Blakeson knows this, and it's only his knowledge of the field's inherent traps that keeps The Disappearance of Alice Creed from falling into them. His screenplay is often inventive and fresh, injecting interesting twists into old ideas and relying on character relationships to propel the drama. Yet there's an inorganic coldness to the final product that's ultimately attributable to those same narrative contortions: Too often the small cast feels forced into confrontations or situations that have a flat desperation about them, as if Blakeson didn't care what happened next as long as it wasn't what you were expecting. So while the film is a success in one way, in another it's a disappointment, as it gets caught up in its fevered passion to chart a different course and neglects the importance of making that journey worthwhile. Blakeson's still a hostage, just a different kind.
In his second screenplay and first time behind the camera at the feature level, Blakeson keeps things simple. This is a story about a girl and two kidnappers, and that's all we ever see. That narrow focus gives the proceedings an air of believability, at least at the beginning, as Danny (Martin Compston) and Vic (Eddie Marsan) go quietly and efficiently about the business of buying supplies at a hardware store and turning their van and apartment into the transport and prison necessary to hold someone against their will. The best moments in the film are possessed of this almost mundane quality in regards to criminal activity, as Blakeson works to highlight the fact that, as outlandish as it is to kidnap someone and ask for $2 million in ransom, you still have to buy duct tape and gloves and remember to charge the cell phone. Danny and Vic construct their ad hoc prison before taking Alice off the street one afternoon, an act that's also left unseen. It's easy to say (however rightly) that the reasons for having major moments in the story occur off-screen are as budgetary as they are aesthetic, since the viewer's mind can easily fill in the few seconds between when Danny and Vic get out of their van and when they return to its rear with the struggling form of a hooded woman, and filming that imagined action costs money. But Blakeson manages to make it feel like an emotional choice, not a fiscal one, thanks to his focus on the characters as well as what those characters are doing.
The film's first half is its stronger one, as Blakeson builds tension in marvelous ways. Once Alice (Gemma Arterton) is back at Danny and Vic's, handcuffed to the bed and gagged, Vic goes out to make first contact with Alice's family while Danny is put on guard duty. He brings her a bucket to use when she signals she needs the toilet, and when he briefly turns his back, there's a struggle over his gun during which he fires a shot. Blakeson keeps up the action so well with what happens next that he gracefully puts the fact of the fired bullet in the past until Danny hears Vic returning and knows that Vic will be upset at Danny's poor performance. Minutes later, Vic is feeding the bound woman when Danny glances down to see the single bullet casing he forgot to pick up. What started out as a scene that relied solely on emotional tension becomes instantly heightened with the injection of a physical object tied to that tension, as well as a creeping timeline in which Danny has to try and weasel past Vic to snag the casing without the older man knowing. It's a taut, well done sequence indicative of what Blakeson is capable of with the right combination of tools and talent.
However, the director soon runs out of organic-feeling ways to keep things moving along, which leads to the introduction of some pretty ludicrous plot points that hinge upon the personal relationships between the three characters being a lot more detailed than they'd previously let on, developments that mostly work but that ultimately leave the story feeling overheated, as if the writer was unsure of himself and wanted to jam in a few more twists to try and elicit shocks. What started out as a drama compelling in its believability becomes, if not less watchable, definitely less interesting, reduced to the level of B-grade shlock Blakeson had seemed on track to avoid.
Although the film gradually loses steam as it chugs toward an ending, Marsan does a fantastic job throughout. He's not a big man -- IMDb lists his height at 5'8" -- and he's got more slender shoulders than you'd expect of a crime story heavy, but he's got a lethal on-screen presence and absolutely unflappable stare, coupled with a biting delivery that perfectly encapsulates Vic's constant suspicions. He's got the chops to pull off the role and keep things moving, which helps when he's working with a polite but two-dimensional partner like Compston. Arterton is solid enough as Alice, able to cry on cue and look believably resilient on occasion, but there's only so much she can do chained to a bedpost.
There are small moments that work. Danny, after pocketing the stray bullet casing, can't find a decent hiding spot for it and decides to swallow it. He coughs it up some time later, stunned to find the little hunk of metal back in his palm. With a laugh that turns to tears, he pops it back in his mouth and works it down. It's a sharply drawn occurrence that expertly conveys the inevitability of the situation that threatens to smother all involved, and it shows a devotion to the people who populate the tale that's sadly missing from the bulk of the film. Yet it's also the root of the film's undoing: It's amazing to see a man do such a thing, but we just don't care that he's doing it.