by Gabe Valdez
Movies are all about expectations. If I’d rented No Good Deed straight-to-DVD, having no idea what it was, I still wouldn’t think it’s a good movie but I’d applaud the effort. Seeing it in the theater, however, magnifies all its flaws 30 feet tall.
Most of my expectations come from the leads. Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson typically define quality. You’ll recognize Elba from Thor and Pacific Rim (or the BBC’s Luther), Henson from TV’s Person of Interest. Elba plays an escaped convict, Colin Evans, who we’re told is a malignant narcissist. Think Jeffrey Dahmer – all charm and intellect in the service of murdering women. Henson is Terri, a mother of two children whose home he finds after driving off the road in a rainstorm.
What follows is a cat-and-mouse game as Colin ingratiates himself more and more into Terri’s evening, learning information about her, whether her husband will be returning, earning the momentary trust of her daughter.
So what are these flaws? The script by Aimee Lagos is awful. The concepts are good, but the dialogue just isn’t there. You’ll never see a more underlit movie in your life. There’s realism and then there’s watching actors in permanent silhouette for 90 minutes. Ever wonder what the moody, droning synth music they play in crime procedurals sounds like in an entire theater? The answer is “overwrought.”
Worse yet, director Sam Miller doesn’t know when to cut. Elba and Henson do a great job of saving the tension of the film later on, but in the service of realism, Miller extends scenes and shots too long, taking nicely acted emotional beats into the dreaded realm of overacting. He does his actors a disservice.
Worst of all (I feel like we’re doing a countdown here), there’s a major twist near the end of the film. Now, twists are great. I love twists. One of the saddest days in recent film history is when M. Night Shyamalan got self-conscious and stopped using them. When you add a twist in the last act of a movie, however, you have to give your viewer space to process it. The best twists – those in Fight Club, The Usual Suspects, and Shyamalan’s early career – are foreshadowed expertly and delivered so precisely that they seem obvious to the viewer the moment they’re revealed. The only thing you want an audience to think in that moment is: “How could I not see that earlier?”
The twist in No Good Deed still has you figuring out how it works as you walk out of the theater. It’s not a bad concept. In fact, it’s the most interesting element of the movie – it changes Colin’s entire motive and presents an even more warped and frightening vision of his moral compass. It’s delivered in such a clunky manner and feels so far out of left field, however, that the shaky suspense Elba and Henson have fought to develop across the rest of the film evaporates in a heartbeat. It’s the single worst moment I’ve seen in a movie this year.
On a side note, No Good Deed is getting slammed by some because it’s a movie about a man’s violence toward women in a news week dominated by the NFL’s Ray Rice and other players being investigated for domestic abuse. I’ll credit a movie for coming out in a timely manner and having social presence, but I’ll hardly blame one for coming out during the wrong news cycle. (I’d also tell ESPN that while they’re tearing down the NFL – and rightly so, despite my love for the game – that it seems disingenuous to champion Floyd Mayweather and athletes in other sports free of the context of their domestic violence histories.)
Getting back on task, No Good Deed is a mess, but is it an interesting mess? It has its moments, primarily because Elba and Henson keep recovering the film’s tension. One scene in particular, involving a shower and Colin forcing Terri to change, was uncomfortably close to the domestic violence a friend of mine recently suffered. It captured my attention. Another scene involving a traffic stop is very solid. The film keeps coming frustratingly close to mattering, but it undermines itself on every technical and story level possible. I’ll applaud the effort, but its execution is disastrously bad.
Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?
All new reviews going forward will have a section on whether the movie passes the Bechdel Test. This helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.
1. Does “No Good Deed” have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Terri’s best friend Meg (Leslie Bibb) and daughter Ryan (Mirage Moonschein), as well as Colin’s unnamed ex (Kate Del Castillo).
2. Do they talk to each other?
Yes. Terri speaks with Ryan and Meg at different points in the movie.
3. About something other than a man?
I’ll go into this last answer. Terri speaks with her daughter Ryan, telling her to do chores or get ready for bed. The only conversation she has with another adult is with Meg. These conversations have one-line asides about other matters, but always focus squarely on men – Terri’s husband, the mysterious Colin.
Meg is a fairly empowered character – she ogles a construction worker, she’s sexually assertive, and she’s clever about ferreting out Colin’s lies. Ryan is a little girl and doesn’t have much to do outside of being in danger. She’s never once scared, but I think this has more to do with bad direction of a child actor than any statement the movie’s making. Terri herself is presented as having given away much of her independence and power to her husband, and regretting this. Within the confines of horror movie cliches, she’s very smart in how she fights back against Colin and protects her children – it’s safe to say she’s a strong role model.
The genre itself (home invasion) requires every character get beaten, terrorized, or killed at some point. Everyone but the villain being a woman presents a danger in adopting the villain’s misogyny from a cinematic standpoint. For all its other faults (and there are many), the movie does avoid this trap. Its women are terrorized, but that never feels like the point. Terri and Meg are strong, capable women with their own lives, although I do wish their friendship had been explored a bit more.