“There’s a storm coming,” a minor character informs stay-at-home mom Terri (Taraji P. Henson) towards the beginning of the home-invasion thriller No Good Deed. It’s a clunky bit of portent, but barely registers as such because the movie has spent its opening minutes annihilating the very concept of portent. As coiled prisoner Colin Evans (Idris Elba) rides to his parole hearing, a newscaster breathlessly reports on his weirdly specific criminal circumstances, before the parole hearing scene offers even more expository detail. The movie is hell-bent on not just hinting that something might be slightly amiss with the charismatic Colin, but specifically diagnosing him as a “malignant narcissist” on par with Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. When he shows up at Terri’s door in the middle of the awkwardly teased thunderstorm, asking to use her phone, there’s no room for suspicion: This is a bad man, whether Terri knows it or not.
In theory, explaining upfront (and then swiftly, luridly illustrating) that Colin is a dangerous psychopath could adhere to the oft-cited Hitchcock principle of showing two characters at a table, unaware that there’s a ticking timebomb underneath it—only in this case, Elba plays the bomb, Henson plays the table, and there aren’t really any characters, at least none with any traits beyond “good” and “bad.” Elba and Henson could, of course, do more if given the chance. When she first cautiously invites Colin into her home, Terri—vaguely annoyed at her stiff of a husband (Henry Simmons) for leaving on a golf trip—talks to her guest like they just met at a bar. It’s foolhardy, but Elba’s cool authority and a few gestures from Henson (the way she quickly adjusts her hair in the mirror) sell the flirtation, at least momentarily.
A shame, then, that the movie insists on conveying Colin’s shaky grasp on his sanity with shock edits that flash back to Colin’s misdeeds and interrupt the actors’ flow. Even in simple dialogue exchanges, the movie’s strategy of leaving almost no mystery to Elba’s character undermines any accumulation of suspense. (It also undermines the screenplay’s early assertions about Colin’s seductive ability to appear rational and calm, because he seems unable to stay calm for more than a few minutes before flying into a homicidal rage.) What might have been seductive scenes with an undercurrent of menace become an exercise in time-killing.
That sense of menace never arrives, even when No Good Deed punches into hardcore thriller mode; it has no patience for anything but the most obvious jolts. Elba can be scary, but there aren’t any layers to his madness. Henson at least gets to be a craftier and more physically aggressive version of the woman in distress, but the movie isn’t really interested in its characters, just their boilerplate circumstances. Director Sam Miller, who worked with Elba on the TV series Luther, seems to think that a hasty cobbling together of creaking floorboards, surprise stabbings, and baby endangerment will be enough to tighten up the suspense in the final stretch. It’s not. By its end, No Good Deed becomes troublingly easy to read as a parable about the untrustworthiness of black men. The filmmakers may not have intended it that way, but the movie is so bereft of anything else that its forays into moralistic paranoia stick out.