Atom Egoyan’s The Captive takes a mulligan on his previous disappointment, Devil’s Knot, and proves that given his own script and a bit more scope he can still create a subtle, thought-provoking film. Following the consequences of the abduction of a nine-year-old girl, the film dissects the tissue of emotions, regrets, and recriminations that surround an unforgivable trauma.
Director: Atom Egoyan.
Screenplay: Atom Egoyan, David Fraser.
Runtime: 111 Minutes.
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Mireille Enos, Rosario Dawson, Kevin Durand.
Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Plot: Nine year-old Cassandra is kidnapped from the back of her father’s car, parked mere minutes outside a local diner. Her parents live with the consequences every day, as eight years later she has still not been found and is presumed dead. The local Niagara Falls Police continue to work the case, but less and less frequently; instead, focusing their efforts on a child pornography ring that may incidentally hold the key to the girl’s disappearance eight years ago.
Festival Goers? See it.
Viewed as part of the Canberra International Film Festival.
Review: The Captive is a thrilling return to form for writer-director Atom Egoyan, who hasn’t had a good few years in the eyes of the critic. Fresh off the banal and forgettable Devil’s Knot, the director has chosen to fashion a story of his own, about a young girl being kidnapped, into a starring vehicle for Ryan Reynolds. Egoyan has always been a master of small details and coaxing low-key but convincing performances out of his actors; here he proves that he still has a flair for the broader narrative and, in particular, a master’s grasp of film structure.
Egoyan’s and scriptwriter David Fraser’s narrative is easy enough to summarise; a young girl (Alexia Fast) is kidnapped out of the back of her father’s car (a subdued Ryan Reynolds), as they stop on the way home from ice skating practice to pick up some pie. Eight years later, she still hasn’t been found and her father desperately searches, while her mother (Mireille Enos) continues on in her job as a hotel maid – unfairly blaming her husband for leaving the girl alone for minutes all those years ago. Parallel to this, city cop Jeffrey (Scott Speedman) joins the Niagra Falls Regional Police to assist in their ongoing investigation of a child pornography ring operating in the state, and led by veteran investigator Nicole (Rosario Dawson). The paths of these characters cross with the unexplained kidnapping of daughter Cassandra, and the long period of waiting that sees them meet up dutifully year after year to review any small pieces of new evidence. That evidence comes courtesy of another case, eight years later, when the investigators gain footage from another case and think they have spotted a now grown Cass being used to groom young girls for her captors. It is a harrowing story, even though all of the violence and abuse is suggested – and the screen is curiously, clinically devoid of anything suggestive. That distance, which Egoyan uses very effectively, makes the horror grow all the more present.
This would be a straightforward and somewhat derivative film if that where all there was to it; but a few key elements transform the film into something gripping. Key among them is the structure of the film, which doesn’t progress from one scene to another in a linear fashion, but has reshuffled the timeline so that the narrative is told out-of-order. It’s a brilliant gambit; one that works because so little attention is drawn to it. At first we are left to wonder at the Twin Peaks-like mystery that surrounds the characters we are introduced to, and given some natural inklings within those initial scenes. This is then magnified as the slow realisation dawns that we are sometimes seeing events eight years apart; the most stunning example being the confinement of a detective, who is then shown investigating a hotel room for evidence in the very next scene. It is almost as if Egoyan channels David Lynch at his best; cutting away the more surreal elements, while maintaining those flashes of inspiration and insight that make Lynch’s work most powerful. Here Egoyan’s concern doesn’t seem to be so much solving the mystery itself, but the toll that not knowing and slowly losing hope takes on the characters involved. By the close of the film, one can immediately guess when the scene has taken place by how worn and lost the characters appear on screen.
This wouldn’t work without the moving performances of the core cast; and Reynolds and Dawson prove themselves more than able to helm this vehicle. Mireille Enos is called in to work her patented facial misery and emotive channelling in a role that she is all too familiar with, but shines in nonetheless. But the true star is the deeply, deeply unsettling Kevin Durand as one of the ringleaders and chief functionaries of the secret paedophile community. His obsession with the ‘Queen of the Night’ aria from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte is a recurring conceit of the film; an expression of his periodic remorse at damaging these girls and yet his unrelenting obsession, but also a slightly leaden reminder of the fate that awaits him:
Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen / Tod und Verzweiflung flammet um mich her! (Hell's vengeance boils in my heart; Death and despair blaze around me!)
It is also a not so subtle reminder of how inappropriately dark childhood can be, from gory Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales, to supposedly accessible operas of obsession and vengeance. It’s a regrettable misstep in a film otherwise marked for the subtlety of its direction. A particular highlight comes in the form of a chase scene near the close of the film, where the characters act in a smart, sensible, and consistent manner adding up to a tense few moments – an unfortunate rarity in crime thrillers these days. Egoyan also avoids the common genre trap of trying to up the stakes with something even more horrifying and titillating for the audience – as these Patterson-influenced cultural products have become an arms race of perversion – instead sticking to a straightforward crime that is chilling enough as it is.
Some initial reviews of the film have balked at the credibility of the plot, particularly the sophistication and hierarchy of the child pornography ring; and in my opinion let this over-determine their criticism of the film. Egoyan hasn’t helped himself either, falling into a late career slump from such a promising start as a director, which many critics are only too gleeful to define him against; attacking him as a promising indie, international director selling out in standard Hollywood studio fare. It is a huge mistake; and they are missing an opportunity to see something much more worthwhile within The Captive. With that noted, those critics sceptical of the sophistication and penetration of contemporary child pornography rings should read a fucking article or two, and perhaps talk to one of the many real captives that have been held in similar conditions for in some cases decades; it might halt their otherwise self-destructive urge to be ignorant, inconsiderate pricks for an hour or two. The threat that Egoyan documents, although fictionalised and heightened within the film, is real and much worse than most are inclined to believe. ‘A whole new class of freaks,’ as one police officer remarks.
Ultimately, The Captive is a crime procedural, but one which intelligently dissects the resonances and tissues of emotions, thoughts, lost times that surround such a deep and enduring wound. It explores the overwhelming fatalism of that one innocent decision you regret deeply and yet know you could have never foreseen the consequences of; even more than this, as the film makes clear that even without that tiny decision, the outcome would determinedly be the same. It also captures that experience of stumbling upon an old place again that you knew so well, through joy or sadness, and the strange echoes that linger there only for you when you return a different person, perhaps many years later. Egoyan has done an excellent job of creating a deep, sophisticated film underneath the skin of something that might otherwise be mindless genre fare. Added to that, the film ends on a perfect, parting note.
Rating: Four stars.