No Good Deed is a movie about a woman trapped in her own home with a stranger she slowly realizes is a terrorizing psychopath. More accurately, it’s a movie about two great actors stuck in a lousy thriller. Taraji P. Henson plays the woman. Idris Elba plays the psychopath. These are talented, charismatic actors, who have done great work in the past and surely will again. But the movie is thin, obvious, empty, and gives them characters with one-note dynamics and little of interest to do. They’re producers on this picture, so you can’t feel too sorry for them, but if this is the best material they could find, they deserve better.
It’s a rote, unsurprising and straightforward woman in danger movie that hauls out all the old tropes we’ve seen many times before. Even the Surprise Twist, which is really more of a mildly intriguing development or a new piece of evidence, isn’t too surprising. Henson, a well-off former prosecutor, is home with her two small children on a dark and stormy night while her lawyer husband (Henry Simmons) is away. Elba’s a working class murderer who escapes from prison after being turned down for parole, stops to kill his ex-girlfriend (Kate del Castillo), and then crashes his stolen car. He walks to Henson’s house, where she lets him use her phone and her first aid kit. That’s her good deed. It does not go unpunished.
At first he’s nice, sipping tea, making small talk with a flirtatious neighbor (Leslie Bibb), and complimenting the kids on their cuteness. But soon enough he’s maneuvered the situation into something far more dangerous. He’s cut the phone lines. (No cell phones?) He’s hidden the knives. (No blunt objects?) He glowers and stalks while Henson pleads and plans. Aimee Lagos’s script plays out more or less how you’d think, with Henson scheming to protect her kids and alert the authorities, while Elba cuts off escape routes and heightens the tension until the climactic violent act brings it all to an end.
All the while it’s uninvolving and obvious, alternating between uncomfortably brutally menacing and totally dull. An intrusive score hammers crescendos of clattering strings and brassy bass with every moderately startling burst of anger or violence. Director Sam Miller, who worked with Elba on their BBC show Luther, can’t even trust the audience to remember something from a few minutes earlier, layering benign dialogue with flashbulb flashbacks into scenes plenty off-kilter to begin with. We remember Elba strangled, and then bludgeoned, his ex. That’s what makes his intrusion in the nice woman’s home so scary. We don’t need to be reminded.
On the surface of this setup is fairly obvious potential. The movie could easily have said something heightened and interesting about gender, or class, or race, or domestic violence, but it can’t even muster up the energy for low genre pleasures, let alone anything loftier. The movie has two overqualified leads, a sturdy premise, and proceeds to do nothing. Thinking back over the plotting, I not only picked out the plot holes, but I found myself marveling at how little happens, and how little I cared about what did manage to appear. This is not good. It appeals to the same impulse of interest a junk paperback in a grocery store spinner engenders, along with the same hollow disappointment when it fails to provide even fleeting empty-calorie distraction.