I am well aware that The Good Liar is “an old person movie”. However, at the ripe 22 years of age, I couldn’t have been more excited about it. There was just something about the trailer and the premise that scratched my thriller itch. Suffice it to say I went into this movie with high expectations. I came out of it, not nearly as thrilled as I went in. However, despite its shortcomings, The Good Liar is a very entertaining and highly watchable thriller for any crowd (but especially the geriatric one).
Minor Spoilers (Labeled) Below.
I can’t claim that I’m a huge fan of director Bill Condon. For one thing, he directed 2/5 of the Twilight Saga. For another, he directed a Disney remake, albeit one of the better ones but that’s not saying much. His works, to me at least, seem to lack real substance. He succeeds in captivating the audience visually, but the sub-level storytelling that sticks with you afterward is hardly found in his films. Unfortunately, that trend rings true once again with The Good Liar. There are plenty of flashes in the pan, but hardly any legitimate story gold. The thrills are exciting and tense, but they are followed by the little payoff.
A Problem of Priority
According to the natural laws of video storytelling, Helen Mirren‘s character, Betty, is the protagonist of this film. She’s the subject of the opening shot, her choices drive the story and the antagonist’s plot further. However, this film never really gives itself up to her story. Rather, the film follows the antagonist, Roy, played by Ian McKellan.
It’s not a party foul to make the main character a bad guy, but Roy isn’t made the main character. Roy is interesting, but not dynamic. He’s driven towards one goal that never changes, yet we hardly see him choose to be anything but what he already is. He is the driving force of conflict, but he isn’t a reactive participant to it for most of the movie. Instead of spending additional screen time with Helen Mirren to better understand her motivations and her true stake in the matter, we spend time with Ian McKellan. The result is some pretty exciting and thrilling sequences of a con-man at his cons but they come at the loss of genuine depth to the protagonist.
The Thrill is Gone
What makes this movie work is the fact that while Roy doesn’t change much as a character, his actions during the plot are almost always unpredictable. This is due in part to Ian McKellan’s mastery of his craft. Roy is not only fun to watch, but also terrifying. Aside from his attempted leeching of Betty’s retirement fund, Roy is also a well-versed conman. The movie is at its best when we’re watching McKellan play the dark side of Roy, whether that’s with Betty or with his revolving door of other victims and associates.
The thrills of Roy’s secretive lifestyle are what make this movie exciting and entertaining. However, I can’t imagine they’d carry the film past the initial viewing. The surface of The Good Liar is sleek as hell, but there isn’t as much fine-tuning underneath.
What Makes a Twist?
Avoid this section if you wish to avoid spoilers.
This movie is over-directed. The biggest twist is guessable from the first shot of the film. Right after the opening credits fade out, most audience members should be able to piece together a general idea of the finale. That’s okay. The nature of this type of film buts the analytical wires of its audience into first gear. What’s not okay is the way that this twist is delivered.
A good cinematic twist sits right in front of you the whole time. Luke Skywalker talks about his father’s absence and betrayal for an entire movie before the twist is finally revealed in the third act of the sequel. Charles Foster Kane plays with his sled two hours before that same sled is finally attributed to its name. The key to a good twist is in distracting the audience from putting the pieces in front of them together.
Avoid this section if you wish to avoid spoilers.
Rather than putting the puzzle pieces in play and allowing the audience to put them together as the story progresses, The Good Liar deliberately hides its winning hand up the backside of its sleeve, only revealing necessary components of Betty and Roy’s stories when its absolutely necessary for the twist to make sense. Herein lies my largest issue with Bill Condon: he over-directs. In doing so, he also underestimates the intelligence of his audience and undermines the story. The meaning behind Betty’s character, in particular, feels forced by a couple of third-act flashbacks that force the elements behind the movie’s biggest twist.
Adapting a Thriller
The Good Liar‘s lackluster third act isn’t entirely the fault of its director. Unfortunately, adopting a work like this is an uphill battle. This film is based on the eponymous novel by Nicholas Searle. While I haven’t read the novel, I do understand how novels work, and they have a distinct advantage over film. Novels allow you to jump into a character’s head. They can also be as descriptive as possible without being obvious.
The camera is the biggest threat to a mystery/thriller film because if it lingers too long it clues the audience in, but if it doesn’t linger at all, it hides important information from the audience. This weakness exists in The Good Liar because we are unable to get a clear look into the characters’ backstories without revealing too much information too early on. So, we are not given a complete look at our main characters until too late in the game. The twist then feels forced and the overall story loses meaning.
I enjoyed The Good Liar. It fell below my expectations, yes, but it was a helluva lot of fun. Ian McKellan is menacing and dangerous, despite playing an 80-year old man with an occasional bum leg. Helen Mirren feels both threatened and threatening, even though she’s basically playing your grandmother. When this movie works, it’s tense and discomforting. When it doesn’t work, it feels like a bit of a chore. That being said, this movie is a great big-screen feature. Even though its biggest twist doesn’t quite land as intended, it has plenty of thrills along the way.
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