At some point earlier this week Screen Gems, the low-budget genre arm of Sony Pictures, sent out an email saying that press screenings for their upcoming home invasion thriller “No Good Deed” had been shuttered because the twist ending was so seismic that they didn’t want members of the press seeing it early and then spilling the beans. (There had been a handful of screenings in anticipation of junket interviews; presumably these same journalists were not reviewing.) According to this official statement, the studio wasn’t hiding the movie because it was lousy, they were concealing it in an effort to preserve its shock value. Of course, this was utter hogwash. Not only did the “twist” they had been endlessly hyping come across as a limp afterthought, but also the movie itself is a gruelingly unpleasant slog. “No Good Deed” deserves to be punished.
At the beginning of “No Good Deed,” Colin Evans (Idris Elba) is pleading for an early release from prison, even though he killed one man in a barroom brawl and is suspected of murdering several other women. Evans is charming, handsome and intelligent but is described by one of the parole board members as a “malignant narcissist,” and, upon being transported back to prison, he murders several guards (including the kindly old man who wishes him well) and escapes. After paying a visit to his two-timing ex-fiancé (you can imagine how that turned out), Evans ends up crashing his getaway vehicle and showing up on the doorstep of Terri Granger (Taraji P. Henson), an ex-District Attorney who is underappreciated by her emotionally distant husband and frazzled by staying at home with her two young daughters. Even though he’s a total stranger (with a giant gash on his forehead, no less, a souvenir from his escape) and a thunderstorm is raging outside, she invites him inside.
The fact that “No Good Deed” has such a slim narrative backbone isn’t necessarily an issue. In fact, there have been plenty of films, from the underappreciated Larry Cohen movie “Bone” to the super-creepy “Pacific Heights” to David Fincher‘s “Panic Room,” that have utilized the home invasion premise to adventurous places, both on a thematic level and in terms of visual pyrotechnics (being confined in a single space is always a recipe for, at the very least, some nifty camerawork). There is something inherently disturbing about home invasions, since the home is the one place where you’re supposed to be safe and sheltered. The best home invasion movies milk tension not just from the invasion itself but in the way the homeowner turns the tables and re-establishes control. It’s that aspect of the genre that provides thoughtful catharsis, even in the schlockiest of scenarios.
Not that you’ll find anything beneath the surface of “No Good Deed.” It’s as damnably straightforward as movies get. Occasionally an idea will be introduced, like Granger’s specialty, back when she was practicing law and not running around a spacious Atlanta mansion with a baby on her hip, involved cases of “violence against women.” This could have provided an interesting psychological dimension, since she is, at least initially, attracted to this shadowy stranger and desperate for any positive male attention. But this idea is never explored. Attraction becomes repulsion like someone flipping a switch, and she is never given the opportunity to assess the madman in her house and then think of a clever way to escape. Sure, she fights back every once in a while, but it’s odd that a woman who is set up as such an intellectually fierce presence is instead reduced to a character almost completely designed by her physicality. At one point she is forced to take a shower with the intruder and while this is incredibly icky, it also doesn’t make much sense on a practical, narrative level (especially since the character is embodied by the fiery Henson). Somehow, “No Good Deed” finds a way to be exploitative and creepy wherever it can.
This is, of course, a movie that at least initially seems to want to bring some moral ambiguity both to the Elba character and the scenario he finds himself in, on the doorstep of an affluent African American woman. Subtext about the divide in the black community, the nature of personal reform, and the various cogs of the justice system are flirted with but never fully engaged. Instead, much of the movie is interested in gloriously showcasing the problematic image of a handsome black man murdering a bunch of white women, something that would have seemed iffy even outside of the current political climate but now seems downright toxic.
Maybe worst of all is the fact that it wastes the considerable talents of Elba and Henson; these two performers give it their all but are betrayed by the threadbare script and flimsy direction (by British TV director Sam Miller, who apparently is a big fan of super-tight close-ups). Elba is supposed to be a conniving mass murderer but he never gets any dimension or grace. He should have at least had a mustache-twirling monologue or two. Instead, he “disconnects” whenever women are talking and goes into a kind of bloodthirsty fugue state. Not only is it really clumsily handled but seems to reinforce the movie’s embedded misogyny. Henson similarly tries and is similarly failed by the forces around her, who have little idea how to handle her character or what to do with her.
Oh, and about that twist that Screen Gems was so concerned about getting out – it’s total nonsense. And not in the enjoyable nonsense way where a UFO lands in the middle of suburban Atlanta or it turns out that Idris Elba is a ghost. No. This is a boring bit of exposition that is unleashed in the middle of the third act to make it seem like a twist, but it’s really not. (Especially because it’s accompanied by a flashback to something that the character who is figuring out the twist could have never known.) The promise of this big reveal is like the rest of “No Good Deed,” though, full of potential but ultimately worthless. [F]