No Good Deed follows Terri (Taraji P. Henson), an Atlanta housewife and mother of two, who finds herself having to make a risky decision on a dark and stormy night. That decision is whether or not to provide aid to one Colin Evans (Idris Elba), a tall, dark and handsome man who was apparently injured in car crash. Being the good woman that she is, Terri decides to provide help (in limited capacity) to the stranger at her door.
However, as the title of the film implies, Terri’s sympathies come at great consequence. Colin is not the kindly man he seems at first; slowly but surely, the smooth, charming facade begins to crack, revealing a delusional psychopath lurking under the surface. Trapped in her home with two kids to protect, and a madman standing between her and any help coming, Terri must stand up against the evil presence in her home, and save her family.
No Good Deed marks a new collaboration between actor Idris Elba and director Sam Miller, who worked together on the BBC TV series, Luther. Like with Luther, Miller is adept at creating nightmarishly tense real-world scenarios involving psychopaths and their victims; however, even with two powerhouse leads in Elba and Henson, writer Amiee Lagos’ (96 Minutes) script can only deliver a so-so thriller whose ambitious reach to deliver deeper commentary lacks the narrative grasp to execute.
Visually, No Good Deed is better than the material on the page. Miller creates a darkly lavish look to his cinematic world, with camera work that ranges from methodically executed shots and movements, to more visceral Cinéma vérité (aka shaky cam) sequences when the violence is in full swing. If you’re a fan of Luther (and if not, you probably should be) the visual palette will be all too familiar – as will the array of techniques Miller uses to ratchet up the tension levels. From quick jump scares to painfully long, lingering moments of watching a victim being sadistically toyed with, the movie makes you squirm. In terms of its intended goals, No Good Deed is indeed tense and thrilling for most of its carefully measured run time.
Back to the script. While the narrative does go for something a little bit deeper and more developed than most home invasion thrillers, it simply doesn’t play out nearly as well as it hopes to. There are the usual plague of genre problems – logical inconsistencies (who would do that?) and all-too-convenient interruptions (someone’s at the door!) – and as stated, this particular films tries to set up twists that any person with a careful eye will spot way in advanced. As a narrative, No Good Deed is aiming to make commentary on real issues like gender politics and feminine identity, but the genre skin that commenatry is wrapped in offers nothing new, significant or all that interesting to see – making it hard to pick out the jewels buried in dark rough (…no pun).
Lackluster material gets a boost from the principal actors in the cast. Elba is the force that makes the film work; it’s compelling to watch him play a character who can shift between suave, charming hunk and sadistic psycho with the tick of a second. He is equally effective in conveying both sides of Colin, and has enough skill to lace those sides into one well-rounded persona – a highly intelligent killer who knows how to effectively hide his wolf fur under sheep’s wool. Just watching Colin is a thrill in and of itself, as he keeps you guessing just when the bomb inside him is going to go off (next).
That’s not to take away from Taraji P. Henson, who definitely holds her own against her intimidating co-star and manages to actually convey many of the underlying feministic themes in the narrative subtext. In Henson’s hands, Terri is more than the sobbing, pleading victim (though she is that too); she displays strength, tenacity, sex appeal, and – when the material is not failing her – more intelligence than your usual horror/thriller damsel in distress type. In fact, Terri is not the sort of damsel waiting for a save, and the movie does a good job earning the character’s arc.
The supporting cast is small, but effective in their roles. Leslie Bibb (Iron Man) is a scene-stealer as Terri’s best friend/the token white person; Kate del Castillo (Weeds) is solid as Colin’s ex-fiancee; and Henry Simmons (NYPD Blue) does a lot with a little, playing Terri’s husband.
In the end, No Good Deed is pretty much what it promises to be: your standard home-invasion thriller. The talent is there behind and in front of the camera, even if the material doesn’t exactly satisfy the lofty goals it sets up for itself. But if the nightmare of home invasion – and/or some deeper commentary on modern feminist identity vs. male dominance/control issues – sound like a fun enough time to pay full ticket price for?…
Second thought: you should probably do yourself a good deed and just wait for the rental.
No Good Deed is now playing in theaters. It is 84 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, menace, terror, and for language.
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