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What Went Wrong With… The Good Liar?

A review of The Good Liar for whatwentwrongwith.com

It’s very disappointing when a thriller that claims to be labyrinthine turns out to be completely predictable. The Good Liar sports the tagline of “Read Between The Lies” but as soon as it begins (or even when you’re watching the trailer) you can see what’s coming a mile off. In case you don’t know, The Good Liar is about a con-man and his female target… hmm… I wonder who’ll get conned? I think he’ll successfully steal all her money and live a long happy life! So of course: everybody walking into this film knows what’s about to take place, because what would be the point of a film where a con-artist walks off into the sunset with all the loot (Dirty ahem Rotten ahem Scoundrels)? What you as an audience member don’t know going into this movie, is the hows and whys but when you finally find out, you’re left thinking… but why?

A twisty thriller done properly is very enjoyable, in fact an unforeseen twist can create some of the best films of all time. Whether it’s The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense, Primal Fear or Oldboy, you have to be thrown off the scent by a skilled writer and director. Unfortunately, The Good Liar isn’t well constructed or presented. It’s not cleverly written or well directed (what do you expect when you hire the director of Candyman: Farewell To The Flesh?). The two leads (Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen) are seen on a dating site called “Distinction Dating” during the opening and this is the only scene in the entire movie that works. As the two characters take a sip of wine and smoke a cigarette whilst ticking the boxes for “non-smoker” and “non-drinker”, the film makes you intrigued but simultaneously makes the upcoming narrative obvious; if Brian is Roy and Betty is Estelle, they’re both liars and they’re both hustling each other… so no real twist then?

This opener would be perfectly fine if what followed was completely twist-filled but alas, it’s not. The film begins like an episode of Hustle or the film The Sting and you assume that the con will be relatively fun and that the antagonist may even be a loveable rogue. But somewhere during the middle act, The Good Liar veers-off into 1940s Germany with Nazi hunters, English lessons, and something altogether more serious that spoils the mood of the entire film. When you discover the reason for revenge, the counter-con makes less sense. I won’t spoil the film but there’s no appropriate retribution here (think a less extreme The Perfection). If a character’s reasoning for stealing is anything other than monetary gain, then it feels inappropriate. All I’ll say is: if someone is physically harmed, would taking the perpetrator’s money make them feel any better? Probably not.

The Good Liar is set in 2009 because the two leads would either be in nappies or located in a pair of testicles during the second World War. This setting is not only contrived given the film’s release date, it’s also unnecessarily expensive; why use CGI on a flashback when it could be set in a back street or a room? The fact that “Phil” from the Cineworld adverts (Phil Dunster) appears in the war-set scenes, you know you’re wandering into B-movie territory. This film also includes a cocky twat of a grandson (played by Russell Tovey) who you wouldn’t mind seeing getting hustled out of his life savings. Unfortunately that doesn’t happen.

I was expecting this film to be enjoyable, after all, it felt quite unique to have a thriller centred around two older actors, to show us that senior citizens can also be conniving, bad-mouthed villains but like I said, the central character’s backstory is set during World War II… oh how novel. And since the two leads are old, some prick at the props department decided to make the banking keypad (one of the main plot devices) resemble a big-button phone or calculator for the physically and ocularly challenged. Which bank uses a giant keypad anyway? Even in 2009 banks used tiny key-fob-sized security tokens not floor-tile-sized keypads! And whilst on the topic of implausibility, Ian McKellen’s character is shown as a violent criminal who pushes his adversaries under trains but during the final act he can’t bring himself to walk across some carpet and slap a keypad out of someone’s hands? Oh no, just stand there and watch your balance deplete in £50,000 increments.

There’s a key scene in this film where the two leads are choosing a password to login to their bank account. Helen Mirren’s character looks at a painting of some flowers in an ominous way and this is then brought up in a scene further down the line. The problem is: we the audience have no idea at that juncture in the story, the significance of the flowers and their relationship to the revenge sub-plot. When watching that scene I was reminded of Lionel Twain’s speech in Murder By Death… “You’ve tortured us all with surprise endings that make no sense. You’ve introduced characters in the last five pages who were never in the book before! You withheld clues and information that made it impossible for us to guess who did it!”. Fucking lilies.

Very much like The Aeronauts, The Good Liar resembles a TV-made film rather than a cinematic movie, in this case a Sunday night drama on the BBC or ITV. Given the unsurprising plot and small-screen aesthetic, you’re better off waiting for this film to be aired on the telly. And speaking of the telly, if you want to watch a Helen Mirren drama-thriller that isn’t utterly predictable, seek out the 1970s TV show Thriller and her brilliant episode “A Coffin For The Bride” (co-starring Michael Jayston). That too is about a con-man and his victim but it’s cleverly written, it’s better acted, and it’s much more unexpected.

The Bad Liar.

Writing: 2/10

Directing: 2/10

Acting: 5/10

Overall: 3/10

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