The feature-length debut of British writer-director J. Blakeson should be a film school model on how to shoot a shoestring-budget thriller. This taut, chilling account of a kidnapping plot’s slow unravelling excels primarily because of its economical approach.
Not only is the film centered exclusively on the nervous ex-convict Danny (Martin Compston), his fierce, no-nonsense superior Vic (Eddie Marsan), and their titular victim (the new James Bond franchise starlet Gemma Arterton who also starred in Stephen Frears’ “Tamara Drewe”); there is no one else in the film, no extras, even. The movie’s world is the cramped, dark apartment where Danny and Vic hold their young hostage, and while a claustrophobic setting can often render films dull and static, it’s absolutely necessary here to capture the mounting paranoia. When the action briefly moves outside, towards the end, the camera still burrows so deeply into the characters’ faces that the audience begins to shut out the real world right along with them. We suddenly exist only within their mindsets; they are scared one minute, schematic the next, and then right back to scared again.
Unlike so many over-plotted thrillers of the last twenty years (“The Usual Suspects,” most notably) “Disappearance” gives us characters far too myopic to foresee or execute any elaborate double crosses—no one has the upper hand here, each of the principals are forced to deal on the fly with the betrayals or discoveries they’ve stumbled upon. In the process all three make serious mistakes and fall prey to lapses in judgment—but the characters aren’t dumb: gaffes occur because the emotional turbulence of the proceedings wrecks whatever logic or attention to detail they possess. Watching them try to cover them up is mesmerizing.
The scene involving Danny’s retrieval of a stray fired bullet on the floor, before Vic notices it, and his subsequent attempts to flush it down the toilet, is as hilarious as it is unsettling. If a gun seen in the first act of a play is guaranteed to go off in the third act, we know that bullet will figure into the story again.
The performances are first-rate throughout, particularly from Marsan, who already made a riveting impression last year as the gradually imploding driving instructor in Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky.” This time, Marsan plays an even more disgruntled sort—he’s often hunched over so much he seems to be missing a neck, and his face is usually beset with vein-popping rage. Yet Marsan makes Vic a multifaceted individual, impulsively angry one minute, soft-hearted and doleful the next. Compston and Arterton are also superb, as their characters shift capriciously between panic and delusions of self-control.
That said, “Disappearance” isn’t without flaws. One of the major plot twists, which could have been developed with brilliant psychological detail, is instead played for laughs, leaving a fairly mean-spirited impression. And the film won’t win points for originality. The first plot thickener is clearly influenced by “Fargo,” and a late scene that unfolds in the forest threatens to outright plagiarize another Coen Brothers classic, “Miller’s Crossing.” But happily, the film keeps moving, and it ends on as satisfyingly unnerving a note as it began.
“The Disappearance of Alice Creed” comes out in theatres this Friday.