J Blakeson reveals a Hitchockian command of the screen in The Disappearance of Alice Creed

Director holds a mirror up to exploitation-loving audiences

The Disappearance of Alice Creed opens on a most ominous DIY project in England. The kidnapping thriller introduces a pair of ex-cons named Vic (Happy-Go-Lucky's Eddie Marsan) and Danny (Scottish newcomer Martin Compston). In a restless sequence of rapidly cut shots, we see them cruise a parking lot and steal a van. They stride through a hardware store and gather rope, a cordless drill, and soundproofing. They convert a bedroom into a fortified cell. They take inventory of other tools: cell phones, handcuffs, ball-gag, handgun.

For at least 10 minutes, Alice Creed's only piece of spoken dialogue is the word "OK," delivered to suggest "Let's do it." That doesn't count the subsequent grunts of exertions or anguished, muffled cries for help.

Writer/director J Blakeson makes a bold feature film debut with The Disappearance of Alice Creed. He reveals a Hitchcockian command of fluid, claustrophobic set pieces as well as his actors' subtleties of performance. He also unflinchingly presents the ugly content of female brutalization without entirely justifying it.

Some of the early scenes might drive sensitive audiences from the cinema. Vic and Danny bind Alice Creed (Gemma Arterton) spread-eagle on a bed, cut off her clothing, and photograph her with a copy of the daily newspaper. The kidnappers establish their ruthless willingness to humiliate their hostage to keep her under control, but they're also exaggerating her plight to ensure a high ransom from Alice's rich, estranged father. They dress her immediately after taking the photos and make sure she's hydrated and fed as the hours pass.

The abductors' personalities quickly come into focus. Older, dominant Vic tends to bully more passive Danny to keep his attention on their goal. Once they've imprisoned Alice, Vic orders Danny to keep up his strength, although Vic's harsh manner largely conceals his concern. Overall, they're not a pair of funny, wisecracking Cockney crooks out of a Guy Ritchie film. Alice Creed instead feels more inspired by Harold Pinter's theater of menace, with unspoken threats and dangerous possibilities hanging in the air.

Alice Creed's theatricality partly comes from the fact that much of the movie takes place in three rooms: Alice's jerry-rigged cell, a stark white bathroom, and the exterior room, which features walls the color of blood, like one of David Lynch's favored locales. Blakeson prevents the film from feeling static with camera movement and editing that keeps the action dynamic without being showy. Like stage drama, Alice Creed builds tension with reversals and gradually revealed motivations.

Marsan provides the most commanding presence of the three actors. With his dark eyes, grayish teeth and bristly beard, he almost resembles a rat terrier on the hunt. His fiercely professional demeanor belies his emotional vulnerability, however. Compston could be a kid brother to Orlando Bloom, but turns out to have a much more complex agenda than his boyishness suggests.

Arterton has won attention for glamorous, nymph-like roles in Quantum of Solace and Clash of the Titans. Here, her character's ordeal is written across her face, with her puffy skin and smudged black mascara. Initially childlike, Arterton communicates that Alice is more formidable than the audience assumes, with internal resources that allow her to seize opportunities. Nevertheless, she also spends nearly half of her scenes with a ball-gag in her mouth, and such a harrowing creative choice isn't easily explained away.

Alice Creed's twisty plot includes significant reversals and moments that put the shoe on other foot (or maybe the handcuff on the other wrist). But do such moments compensate for extensive accounts of female humiliation? Alice Creed isn't a revenge film, but in that genre female victims of violence themselves turn into violent avengers, neither of which necessarily serves as a positive female image.

Blakeson seems to be aware that simply terrorizing men doesn't make up for scenes of terrorizing women. At one point, the kidnappers digitally record Alice's plea for her father's help, and Vic instructs Danny to threaten her with a knife. Afterward, reviewing the clip on a laptop, Vic says, "She was a good choice," referring to their pick of hostage. The sequence clearly imitates the filmmaking process, drawing attention to Alice Creed's voyeuristic qualities and the directors' own culpability in simulating such horrific moments. With The Disappearance of Alice Creed, Blakeson strives to do more than simply offer pulpy exploitation, and refuses to let the audience or himself off the hook.