Ask 20 people what elements go into a great thriller, and you probably will get 20 diverse answers, but most of them undoubtedly will list some characteristics in common. Certainly all effective thrillers must establish and maintain suspense, and they also should create an atmosphere conducive to the genre. Another necessity is a villain sufficiently depraved enough to strike fear into the hearts of the other characters in the film as well as into those of the viewers. And of course an outstanding chiller should deliver a number of unpredictable shocks and surprises along the way in addition to haunting you long after you have left the theater.
Ask the same 20 people to name the greatest thriller of all time, and again you are likely to get a number of different answers, but among them you may hear such classics as “Psycho,” “The Ring,” “Seven,” “Cape Fear,” “The Night of the Hunter,” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” But my vote for the film that has set the bar so high that no other movie in the genre may ever match it goes to incomparable “The Silence of the Lambs,” the thriller to end all thrillers.
And this discussion brings us to “No Good Deed,” our film of the week and one that simply does not measure up to the criteria for an effective psychological fright fest. The film begins as a convict named Colin Evans (Idris Elba) is on his way to a parole hearing after having served five years in prison on a manslaughter charge. He also was accused of killing five women, but the evidence against him was insufficient to obtain an indictment. Despite Colin’s seemingly earnest plea that he is rehabilitated, the parole board turns him down, but on is way back to prison he manages to escape.
Now while all this is transpiring, we switch to the ritzy home of Jeffrey (Henry Simmons) and Terri Granger (Taraji P. Henson), where they live with their young daughter and infant son. Both of them are lawyers, but Terri is now relegated to being a fulltime housewife and mother. Her husband arrives home from work and immediately begins packing for a golf trip with his father. As he bids Terri goodbye, we get the sense that all is not well with their marriage.
In the meantime, Colin arrives at the home of Alexis (Kate del Castillo), his former fiancée, whom he accuses of being unfaithful to him while he was in prison. She ultimately confesses to her infidelity, and let’s just say she pays a high price for it, and after Colin leaves her house during a thunderstorm, he ends up sliding off the road and crashing into a tree. He escapes serious injury and seeks refuge from he storm at the nearby house of (You guessed it!) Terri Granger.
After Colin knocks on Terri’s door and asks to borrow her cell phone so he can call a tow truck, she foolishly lets him into the house thereby setting up the situation that drives the rest of the film. Will he hurt her or will he not?
The major problem with “No Good Deed” is that you can predict everything that is going to happen because you’ve seen it all before in a plethora of mediocre thrillers. There are absolutely surprises in the film with the exception of a lame one at the end. And you know exactly what each character is going to do next because everything is telegraphed.
In addition to being shamelessly predictable, the movie suffers from the absence of a truly terrifying villain. In fact Colin is about as frightening as a stuffed teddy bear. Here’s a guy who has committed a number of heinous acts, and yet Elba fails to imbue the character with enough depravity to frighten a first grader. Colin is supposed to be a Jekyll and Hyde character, and although Elba portrays the Jekyll side fairly well, his rendition of the Hyde persona leaves a lot to be desired.
Fortunately Henson fares a little bit better than Elba in portraying her character. Terri is a confused, frustrated, and vulnerable woman who realizes her marriage may be in serious trouble. She has had to give up her law practice to stay at home and raise her children while her husband continues to enjoy his profession. When Colin shows up and subjects her to some unaccustomed flattery, he exposes her vulnerability, and she is attracted to him even though she realizes she shouldn’t be. But when he reveals his true character, she is shocked by how she has misjudged him and ends up fighting for her life and the lives of her children. In the film’s production notes Henson explained what attracted her to the project and offered some insight into her character.
“I’d never done a thriller before, and I thought it would be fun to do one like this, packed with girl power. Terri makes an unwise decision for altruistic reasons, and then she has to defend herself. She helps him partly because of her lack of self-esteem. She feels insecure after giving up her career for her family. Her husband certainly isn’t helping. This very handsome, charming man comes to her front door and looks at her in a way that no man has in a long time. It’s a real nail-biter. I think people will walk away from this movie saying you should always follow your gut instinct. Terry does everything for the right reasons, but she ignores her instinct. A woman’s instinct is a beast.”
Despite what Henson says, the film’s predictability prevents it from being a “nail-biter.” The movie is low on the elements of suspense and mystery, and with the exception of a fairly decent fight at the end, there really isn’t much to recommend it. The movie also contains a monumental copout scene when Terry attempts to escape from a window with her two children as the camera cuts away so we can’t see how she accomplishes the impossible.
The two best things about the film are Henson’s respectable performance and he movie’s short running time of just 84 minutes. However these attributes are not enough to save the film from earning the final score of a mediocre five. “No Good Deed” is indeed no good thriller.