The Good Liar

The Good Liar is a bad time

Try as they might, Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen can’t save this twist-heavy, preposterous thriller.

In the first act of The Good Liar, an improbable and absurd thriller based on a novel by Nicholas Searle, Betty (Helen Mirren) and Roy (Ian McKellen) watch Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Sitting in the cinema, they recoil as the Nazi-era theatre goes up in flames, and the titular Basterds riddle Adolf Hitler with bullets. As they walk back onto the streets of London, they discuss the film’s treatment of history. Roy worries young people today will take the film as fact; Betty sheepishly replies that as a recently retired teacher, she believes the younger generations are less likely to believe what they see than they are.

The Good Liar has brief moments such as these that hint at introspection. The film, a thriller where the tables are perpetually turning, is briefly fascinating for its treatment of an older generation trying to find their bearings in a modern world. The film’s opening credits feature the main characters starting up 2009-era dating profiles (which look more like the Excel Spreadsheet Kelly Rowland uses to text in the 2002 “Dilemma” video than any website). While even from the onset we are aware of deception and secrecy, there is a gentle appealing warmth to characters discussing the difficulties dating later in life. At one point, Betty leans in to explain her dating theory to Roy, that these websites serve only to “mismatch the delusional with the hopeless.” 

The Good Liar, however, quickly falls into a paint-by-numbers trap of clichés. By the end of the second act, the film feels like the unholy love-child of a Dean Koontz novel and a WWII history channel marathon. Though it begins by subverting the types of stories and characters we see on screen, the film becomes at once increasingly flat and uninvested and increasingly feverish and ridiculous.The strange twists of the plot take precedence over character, feelings and ideas. Even with an all-star cast, it’s difficult to remain interested in the paper-thin characterizations.

Of course, McKellan and Mirren are good. They are two of the most charismatic actors working today with a toolbox full of tricks that they employ generously. As written, though, their characters lack depth. Even as we delve into their histories and motivations, it does little to illuminate their inner lives. The movie belies introspection by focusing on the surface rather than what lies beyond it.

This lack of insight becomes the film’s biggest failure. It’s a movie that doesn’t seem to be about anything, even as it tries to tackle grand and luxurious subjects of history and ageing. On the level of construction, The Good Liar is so astonishingly stupid that it seems like without it being an entirely different movie, it would probably still be trashy. Yet it would have been nice if the film offered a little more of the mood and concerns of the set-up instead of rushing towards its insane twists and turns. 

The movie falters in other ways. Its violence often feels disproportionately graphic for the type of film it is. There are a handful of genuinely shocking incidents, some of which indulge in upsetting gore, while others more carefully imply it. While the direction of the narrative will eventually make some sense of this brutality, it nonetheless feels somewhat out of place, given the mood and storytelling of the rest of the film.

It’s inherently difficult to write about a film when most of the substance is fixated on twists, especially when the movie has very little content beyond them. There’s no doubt that there is an audience for The Good Liar, notably people perversely obsessed with mysteries, regardless of their substance. It has a bit of a rainy Saturday afternoon vibe but is fundamentally infuriating and forgettable that it might not even be worth the streaming bandwidth. ■

The Good Liar opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Nov. 15. Watch the trailer below.

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