No stranger to treating lurid and uninviting subjects in a chilly fashion, Atom Egoyan’s glacial style of filmmaking has always been both a blessing and a curse. While his distant rendering of melancholy in The Sweet Hereafter— regarded by many as his masterpiece — allowed for a quietly devastating examination of mourning, his arctic methods can tend to distract from the psychological value of his films, as was the case in Where the Truth Lies. Egoyan’s reputation has waned in the past decade, with many of his recent feature films — perhaps most notoriously the disastrous Chloe— failing to dazzle critics and audiences. Sadly, The Captive is not likely to buck that trend. Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year as part of a competition lineup criticized by many as too routinely composed of favorite auteurs of the festival’s past, one finds it difficult to imagine that a film as derivative as this one would have been included had a big directorial name not been attached to it. Released just over a year after Egoyan’s fellow Canadian Denis Villeneuve unleashed his perversely entertaining Prisoners upon us, The Captive feels particularly indebted to that film’s politics and provocation. Set in a small rural town, it chronicles the kidnapping of nine-year-old Cass and the devastation this places on her family, particularly her father Matthew (Ryan Reynolds). The ensuing police investigation led by detectives Nicole (Rosario Dawson) and Jeffrey (Scott Speedman) proves unsuccessful — until years later, when the captor indirectly reveals that a now grown-up Cass (Alexia Fast) is still alive and well.
Egoyan seems interested in the darker side of self-preservation, and how the presence of a threat to a loved one can erode our own sense of compassionate humanity.
Like Villeneuve, Egoyan seems interested in the darker side of self-preservation, and how the presence of a threat to a loved one can erode our own sense of compassionate humanity. Despite an insidiously right-wing approach to crime and punishment, Prisoners was able to manipulate the idiosyncrasies of its characters’ criminal activity to create a genuinely engaging mystery, exhibiting a thrillingly eccentric brand of melodrama. Instead of embracing the sensationalism of his material as Villeneuve did, however, Egoyan applies his oblique style to The Captive, seemingly trying to pretend that the material isn’t completely absurd. Certainly, his sobriety is hardly enough to transcend the embarrassingly cartoonish nature of a scene in which two child abusers snarl at one another and discuss the act of internet encryption as if they were bank robbers masterminding a heist. While Egoyan half-commits to the interesting notion that perpetrators can glorify their actions to achieve a sense of self-justification (the closest he ever gets to accessing the core of criminal motivation), the over-the-top lengths to which pedophiles are seen spying on police feels like an especially ridiculous device artificially designed to render them an omnipotent threat.
Unlike Egoyan’s more poignant examination of his own parental insecurities in The Sweet Hereafter, The Captive indulges in tabloid-style scaremongering in order to make similar points. While Reynolds’s Matthew should theoretically be the helpless proxy for the film’s traumatic portrayal of loss, The Captive is much more interesting when it focuses on Dawson’s Nicole. Her intelligent performance is the clearest window into the sensitive procedure of the detectives working to infiltrate the network of abuse, and one wishes that Egoyan had offered more of this departmental insight into acts of exploitation rather than simplifying the mechanics behind them. And what of the titular captive through all this high-minded trash? In fact, despite its title, there is very little identification with Cass, the scenes between her and her captor failing to provide a sense of how their relationship may have developed over the years. (Fast’s bizarrely wooden performance doesn’t help matters, revealing precious little inner turmoil or outward contempt.) In 1965, William Wyler’s The Collector illuminated how illness and sociopathy can lead to obsession and tragedy, sustaining interest through embattled exchanges of will between a captor and his captive. Egoyan’s refusal to similarly deconstruct such behavioral extremes typifies the lazily commercial heart of The Captive. It’s all scare tactics and no intelligence.