1/10 The Good Liar is exhibit A for how poor control of information can utterly ruin a movie.
London, 2009- con artist Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen) has found his final mark, Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren), whom he has approached on an online dating service. But not all is as it seems. All will seem to be as it seems for the vast majority of the runtime, but then, all will no longer be as it had seemed before.
The only meaningful twist of The Good Liar is painfully obvious from the first trailer and in every moment of the film, but I suppose I should put a spoiler tag here. If you’ve seen the trailer and still actually feel like you’ll be surprised by this movie, read no further.
Obviously, McLeish is actually the one conning manipulating Courtnay. That should barely be considered a twist. No one wants to watch a con artist prey on a helpless old woman without anything extra. There’d be no entertainment value to this at all if it weren’t a two-way power play.
But that it’s not a two-way power play. For the majority of The Good Liar’s 110 minutes, viewers are expected to believe they’re watching Courtnay prey on a helpless old woman without anything extra going on. All of McLeish’s conniving is backloaded into the film’s final 10 or so minutes, with no hint of it ever coming before.
There’s a rule about fair play in mystery stories, that for a mystery to be good, everything has to be up-front, everything has to be solveable to a keen-eyed viewer. The story can’t reveal key evidence no one could have guessed in its denouement. The Good Liar doesn’t just keep evidence from its audience – it keeps motivation. McLeish’s entire guiding motivation isn’t revealed until the very tail end of the film, and it’s got to do with Courtnay’s backstory in World War II which isn’t exposited until the back half.
I don’t necessarily agree with the fair play rule – if making sure viewers don’t guess your precious ending is really that important to you, withhold all the evidence you like. But what you absolutely can’t do, and what The Good Liar does, is make the journey toward that ending boring. With no motivation, you have no characters. You have no conflict. You have no story. You can have a twist ending that recontextualizes what came before, but you can’t withhold the driving factors of what viewers are supposed to be watching. You can’t make your audience enjoy the first 90% of your movie retroactively.
I didn’t care about twists going in, I just wanted to see Mirren and McKellen having at each other in a game of manipulation, but they don’t. They each know what their characters are after and, since it involves hiding their true selves, they hide themselves from the audience brilliantly like the all-time greats they are, just like the entire story hides itself until well past the time I’ve already knocked off. For the vast majority of the film, they give two masterfully bland, but still quite bland, performances in these horrible, bland characters.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.