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Gemma Arterton resists Stockholm syndrome

Snatch-22

A simple kidnapping plan turns into something else in this elemental thriller

The Disappearance of Alice Creed

Directed by J. Blakeson
Opens Aug. 13 at the Charles Theatre

The colloquial, two-syllable placeholder “OK” is the first snippet of dialogue uttered in British writer/director J. Blakeson’s feature debut, and its ordinary curtness echoes the movie’s overall unnerving effect. By the time one man says it to another onscreen, Blakeson’s camera has followed the pair going about their business with a distressing calm. There they are at the hardware store buying tape, rope, a drill, and rolls of waffled soundproofing foam. There they are stealing the license plates from a car. There they are lining the back of a dodgy van with tarps and installing metal loops. There they are clearing out a derelict flat, screwing the bed to the floor, putting new sheets on it, and soundproofing its walls. There they are sorting through their small squadron of prepaid cell phones, gloves, a digital camera, handcuffs, a ball gag, and a shiny but threatening sidearm. There they are digging a person-sized hole out in the woods. There they are stripping to their skivvies and putting on brand new clothes. And there they are sitting in the van patiently waiting. They haven’t even pulled their ski masks down over their faces yet when a tightening in the pit of the stomach makes you suspect that everything is damn well not going to be OK.

Of course, when the movie is titled The Disappearance of Alice Creed, you walk into the theater expecting something unseemly to happen to one Alice Creed. Blakeson, however, has a near constant supply of twists and turns in store in this skeletal tale, and doles them out as calmly as his two male characters organize their abduction. And 15 minutes into Creed, that crime is all that is known for certain. Gruff, volatile Vic (Eddie Marsan) and the soft-spoken, observant Danny (Martin Compston) have kidnapped young Alice Creed (Gemma Arterton). They placed a bag over her head, drugged her, carried her up to the prepared flat, bound her to the bed, gagged her, stripped her of her clothes, and snapped digital photos of the frightened, nude woman with that day’s newspaper. Then, they clothed her in simple trackies, put the bag back over her head, turned off the lights, exited, and closed and bolted the door.

The plan: Demand 2 million pounds from Alice’s rich father under threat of killing her. Vic and Danny allot 72 hours to pull off their scheme, and meticulous planner Vic has left nothing to chance.

As far as he knows, that is. Blakeson creates and maintains a stiflingly claustrophobic tension by limiting his cast to three people, confining almost the entire movie inside the two cramped rooms of the soundproofed flat, and revealing each character’s personality in what he or she does and says in the moment. Relationships get teased out—how Vic and Danny know each other, what they mean to each other, how they decided upon their victim—almost over the entire 100-minute running time. Motivations come into sharp focus before being pushed fuzzily back into the unknown by subtle twists. And these plot turns hinge on matter-of-fact responses to questions or planning decisions made on the fly, resulting in a streamlined plot that doesn’t so much crime-flick zig and zag as pare itself down to a precarious dramatic tightrope.

It’s an approach that turns a rather formulaic crime caper into a Harold Pinter-uncomfortable autopsy of human cruelty. Blakeson doesn’t have Pinter’s brutal insight into human weakness and desire, but that doesn’t prevent The Disappearance of Alice Creed from being a conventional thriller with a rather disarming psychological depth, thanks entirely to Marsan. His Vic is an even more tautly wound version of the driving instructor he played in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, a man for whom fuming rage and crippling vulnerability were opposite sides of the same emotional coin. So while Blakeson eventually lets his movie wander into the conveniently surprising, the tractor beam of Marsan’s frighteningly understandable Vic prevents that turn into predictability from feeling like a let down.

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