Directed By Bill Condon
Starring – Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey
The Plot – Career con artist Roy Courtnay (McKellen) can hardly believe his luck when he meets well-to-do widow Betty McLeish (Mirren) online. As Betty opens her home and life to him, Roy is surprised to find himself caring about her, turning what should be a cut-and-dry swindle into the most treacherous tightrope walk of his life.
Rated R for some strong violence, and for adult language and brief nudity
– Stirring performances. McKellen and Mirren are national treasures. This much certainly isn’t news, but even in the third act of their respective careers, these two immense figures of the silver screen are still providing vastly intriguing directions to their unlimited depth. In this movie, it means the McKellen rivals his turns as Magneto in the “X-Men” franchise, this time reminding us that pure evil resides the strongest in a man with no superpowers. Ian is remarkably vile in this portrayal, using vulnerability as a senior citizen, as well as a soft English demeanor to trap his prey before turning on the conniving intelligence that has made him an unearned millionaire at such a tender age. He meets his rival, however, in Mirren, who brings forth another onion-peeling performance as Betty. Her naivety is easily her most distinguishing feature, but it’s the directions taken with her character during the third act that prove there’s logs of anguish burning deep beneath her reserved furnace of emotional resonance. Both of these leads make the movie a lot better than it rightfully has any business being, and gives us one more glimpse through the keyhole of two careers who share an air of dedication and sophistication that is so rarely found anymore in today’s Hollywood landscape.
– Fitting pieces. This is a film whose devil is in the details, and while we eventually comprehend that a twist is on the horizon, it’s the clever insertion of clues along the way that will make “The Good Liar” better with its second watch. Without giving away anything, I will say that you should pay close attention to the decor and imagery that is focused on throughout, because it’s in those instances where we see the wheel of curiosity turning, but don’t understand how it spins until our closer look is revealed. It helps Condon to get further lost in these characters and their lifestyles, giving a very psychological pulse to the story that is often overlooked from films who don’t invest meaning in set designs. I love a story where the imagery plays a piece into where the direction is headed, and with Bill’s measured level of adaptive direction from the novel, he brings to life those descriptively miniature details to harvest into something pre-established within the conflict.
– Tonal precision. A lesser film would take a plot involving an 80-something con man, and render it to comedic proportions, and while there are instances of pleasurable relief maintained within the air of the deceit, I am thankful than Condon took serious care in fleshing out the danger of the deed, especially during a time when we are so vulnerable with our valuables. Condon maintains a healthy balance of paranoia and urgency in the air, that while nothing as spine-tingling as a spy thriller or a psychological stinger, does the job in illuminating Roy as this no-nonsense danger to society. This atmosphere eventually matures even more by an unraveling third act, which only ups the stakes, and reminds us how our pasts are the only things that can run faster than we can.
– Subtle lighting. There are two aspects to credit Tobias A. Schliessler with, and the first is his incorporation of lacking light to sequences that vividly paint the picture of secrets materializing from below. Tobias uses a lot of dominant shadow-play to present the faces in frame as half dark/half lit to elaborate the double lives that each of them are playing, all the while maintaining the trick that is being presented front-and-center. Also on the colorful spectrum is the scouting of set designs, like the one in the train subway, that preserves a level of European style that is every bit bold as it is foreign to the kind of weathered interiors that we are used to within American cinema. For a movie so dark and deceptive, there’s plenty of substance within the style that Schliessler taps into, giving a lighting scheme that is every bit as reflective of the jaded personalities that bounce from its minimalization of glow.
– Crafty framing. Schliessler’s second praise pays off only if you’re as invested into the narrative as I was. It deals with the duplication of angles between two respective timelines that hint where the story is going long before the words of explanation catch up. During several key sequences in the scene, I noticed not only similarly structured wall designs in certain frames, but also similar imagery and movements of the camera, for how it approaches the clarity of what is obscured. This feeds heavily into the third act state of mind, in how one character has remained confined by their past, stuck in one room on one day where everything changed for the worst. Whether intentional or not, I can’t credit Tobias enough for the way he immerses us seamlessly between two timelines so much that they practically bleed together, and converges them as one cohesive destination that has finally merged together.
– The twists. One thing to understand about this film is that while you will most likely predict the who’s of the story’s pivotal third act plot twist, it’s the why’s that really matter here, and in that regard I had no idea where this film was taking me. I do have problems with its execution that I will get to later, but part of the charm for me was the elaboration of the con that gave the concepts of greed its own two legs to move freely throughout the screenplay. There were moments when I knew what the final result was going to be, but had no clue the amounts of traffic that we would have to navigate through to get there, and it illustrates just how exceptional that Roy is at ironing out the details to push through. Definitely not some of the best surprises that I’ve seen in cinema, but enough sinister sting in the execution to enhance the cinematic experience while watching it.
– Carter Burwell. The very same musical composer who fleshed out a sense of audible identity during academy acclaimed films such as “Carol”, “Fargo”, or “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is back to entrance us with another substantial score, this time combining the mystery of a stranger with the heft of a torturous past, to bring forth compositions as dark and rhythmic as they are bold and daring. “A Wire” is certainly one of my favorites, with all of its humming cymbals and articulate bells chiming along next to a typewriter that serves as our introduction into this world, but it’s easily the emotionally devastating “I Went Back Home” that I hummed along with, minutes after I left the theater. Burwell has a skill at encouraging abstraction to his complex themes, and while there’s room to debate which is more fitting on this track, it’s the compromise of tragedy and closure that resonate so soundly.
– Convoluted. For my money, the major plot twist of the film, while personal in its incorporation, is clumsily addressed in long-winded execution, which halts the progress of the current day narrative twice for five minutes apiece. Surely there’s an easier way to address this big reveal, but for me, I was fine without it all together. Keeping this film a game of con-men one upmanship feels suited enough for this story, and adding this level of revenge to the story just overthinks what should be clever and sleek. It’s exposition dump 101 with how heavy handed it holds our hands through all of it, all the while these two characters are just paused out of frame while we the audience are sifting through all of it. If you want the backstory added, fine, but surely this method of reveal lets out too much air of momentum that was otherwise leading to an intriguing third act conflict. It highlights why new screenplays have to be adapted properly when transferring to film, because some details just don’t play accordingly on screen like they do in the heft of a novel.
– Pointless timeframe. The film makes a point at the very beginning to establish this story in the year of 2009. Why it does so is beyond me, because never in the film is any social or political instance inflicted to the progression of the narrative, nor are there any spare details of importance needed in tying everything together. Even from a technological vantage point, there’s nothing in the film that explains why this couldn’t be done in 2019 as opposed to a year when damn near everything is identical in this capacity. Why even add a year at all? Just make it a timeless tale that can resonate for years and decades to come.
– Unnecessary rating. I was somewhat surprised to see this given the cherished R-rating that I usually covet for during horror movies or raunchy comedies, especially considering this movie doesn’t do enough to justify why it’s even necessary in the first place. For one, there’s three F-bombs throughout the movie. Remove two of these, and you already have a PG-13 movie. Vulgarity in dialogue to me should have meaning, and while there is one such instance in the film, the other two feel influential off-screen, with a director whispering it into the ear of the actor just to drive a point home. There is one scene of strong visual violence, and it is so extremely rendered that it feels like it comes out of nowhere, and is directed to garner unintentional laughter as opposed to its intended horrific effect. If you’re going to go the R-rating path, make it worth it. The aspects within “The Good Liar”, aren’t enough to add proof to the pudding, and just wastes an opportunity that many other films pine for.
My Grade: 7/10 or B-