For those of you who felt last year’s Prisoners was too lighthearted a jaunt down the misery lane of child abduction, good news: Atom Egoyan’s The Captive is here to cover every parent’s worst nightmare in ghoulish detail. Not psychological detail, mind you. The Captive is bewitched by many aspects of kidnapping and pedophilia: chiefly, the tech, the terminology, and the methods of a modern child abuse ring. But when it comes to characters, acting, direction, or the emotional state of its endangered subjects, The Captive isn’t all that interested.
A deceptively elegant 360-pan of wintery Niagara wilderness introduces the film, which from there on operates with the subtlety and restraint of front-page tabloid font. Egoyan kindly opens the following shot with a TV playing opera in the background, so as to remind you that what you’re watching isn’t quite the pinnacle of distraught human tragedy. He sure makes a run for the title, though. Film, a slick medium, can indulge in the accoutrement of suffering, so as the shot flows with sickly indulgence through the estate of its antagonist, Mika (Kevin Durand), the reveal of a keypad-locked dungeon behind a sliding false wall plays like the capper to a segment on MTV Cribs.
Contained within the room is Cassandra Lane (Alexia Fast), a 17 year-old girl who was kidnapped by Mika years earlier. Ambitiously cutting across time periods without warning, Egoyan’s script (co-written with David Fraser) tracks the police investigation and fallout from Cassandra’s disappearance. Having vanished from the back of her father Matthew’s (Ryan Reynolds) pickup truck eight years earlier, the police have only taunting clues from the perpetrator, and occasional appearances by Cassandra online to prove she might still be alive.
Early attempts by the viewer to make sense of the twisted chronology will be complicated by Egoyan’s directorial choices. For instance, Matthew’s truck in the present is introduced as a 4-wheel vigil to the man’s lost daughter, with various childhood knick-knacks and photos spread lovingly throughout the vehicle. Cut back to the date of the kidnapping, only to see that the car was always this way, and that Matthew hasn’t changed appearance in the slightest over eight painful years, and you start to question the purpose of such a circuitous narrative device.
More pertinent and problematic is how the script’s leaden dialogue and structure have stymied the cast, a strong collection of actors that are universally awful in The Captive. Even if the subject matter weren’t so distasteful, you’d still feel rotten for watching what amounts to a 105-minute resume massacre. No one gets out of this thing unscathed. The collection of gesticulating verbal and physical ticks includes Mireille Enos as Cassandra’s mother, whose go-to expression of grief is wild arm-flailing, and Scott Speedman as a detective whose job, seemingly, is to parrot every sentence spoken to him (“He reminds you of someone from your past?” “Yeah, from my past.” “I don’t want you to come.” “You don’t want me to come.”). Reynolds slams his fists on tables with convincing vigor and frequency, but otherwise can’t keep his head above the schlock Egoyan is trafficking in.
All of this pales in comparison to Durand’s effete Mika, the absurd epicentre of The Captive’s lascivious vision of child abduction. Resembling Vincent Price as played by SNL’s Fred Armisen, and operating as the mastermind behind a widespread, technologically advanced pedophile ring, every second spent with Mika is one form of torture or another. Egoyan, seemingly bored by the horrors of short-term abduction, builds a twisted relationship between captive and captor, wherein Mika voyeuristically records Cassandra’s mother, and the older Cassandra goes online to “recruit” other young girls. To call the whole setup deeply uncomfortable doesn’t do it justice. Most galling is the film’s total disregard for Cassandra, as The Captive consistently, conveniently elides over the effects of her mistreatment, all the way through to a truly insulting final image.
There’s a certain degree of craft that can guide an audience through the most objectionable of subject matter (see: the aforementioned Prisoners), but The Captive’s overwhelming incompetence lends it to being aesthetically awful, in addition to just morally ugly. Bruce Greenwood is here, for some reason, as are a number of other characters and subplots that get introduced and dumped without comment. The most offensive involves the disappearance of the case’s lead investigator (Rosario Dawson), providing nothing more than a further grab at titillation that’s as thoughtlessly introduced as it is resolved.
The Captive is fast food miserablism, a strip-mining operation of human suffering that cares little for its story, and even less for its victims. As a sloppily written, poorly acted detective story, it occasionally veers into Lynchian territory of insane plot contrivances and stilted dialogue that gives you the feint hope that this has all just been a dream. No such luck. At one point, we see Speedman’s detective browsing the kind of imagery he’ll have to look at daily in order to infiltrate child abuse circles. He puts on a brave face at first, then recoils in horror at the sight of human misery being exploited for cheap thrills. The camera hides what’s on the screen, but it might as well just be The Captive.