Atom Egoyan’s latest film, The Captive, is a beautiful mess. While well-intentioned, it skirts the line between psychological mystery and movie-of-the-week, hampered by a plot that spins out of control and unexpected, hammy performances. The film’s saving grace is the cinematography of Paul Sarossy, who worked with Egoyan on last year’s Devil’s Knot and the Canadian director’s most acclaimed effort, The Sweet Hereafter (1997).
As with Devil’s Knot, which examined the hot-button case against the West Memphis Three—men wrongfully convicted of satanic killings—Egoyan returns to explore the underbelly of human nature. This time, he shifts the focus from murder to kidnapping, pedophilia and online sex rings.
The film opens with a slow, circular pan of a snow-covered and barren Canadian landscape. The gray desolation mirrors the alienation of construction worker Matthew (Ryan Reynolds), a father haunted by the kidnapping of his 8-year-old daughter Cassandra (Peyton Kennedy). She was taken from his car while he stopped at a diner to pick up a pie, although no witnesses can corroborate his story. The unsolved disappearance creates a chasm between Matthew and his wife Tina (Mireille Enos), who blames him for their loss. Tina’s doubts about her husband are compounded even further when the detectives investigating the case (Rosario Dawson and Scott Speedman) place Matthew at the top of their suspect list.
As is his hallmark, Egoyan employs a nonlinear structure in his script. The Captive’s first third disorients the audience as it pieces together what is past and present for each character. The narrative traverses eight years, and Tina, a Niagara Falls hotel housekeeper, is being tortured by an unseen menace who leaves Cassandra’s belongings in the rooms she cleans. Instead of sharing this information with the police—what would seem the natural action to take—Tina wallows in her despair. The detectives come to their own conclusion that Cassandra may still be alive, but ultimately, it’s Matthew—channeling any number of Liam Neeson characters—who risks everything to find his daughter.
Egoyan and David Fraser wrote the screenplay, working from Egoyan’s original story. The plot borrows a number of elements from true-life crimes, from girls who’ve been held in captivity for years, like the Ariel Castro case in Cleveland, to complex online pornography on the darknet, to well-documented instances of Stockholm syndrome. The emotionally horrific avenues of a kidnapping are treated perfunctorily. But even more distracting in the film’s captor-captive scenes is Kevin Durand’s overdone performance, more comic book villain than creepy psychopath.
It’s Reynolds who shows an impressive range and depth as the guilt-ridden father, his anger simmering just below the surface. Enos, so astoundingly good as the prickly Detective Linden in the AMC/Netflix series The Killing, has a few stagy moments that distance the audience. Both Dawson’s and Speedman’s respective characters aren’t fully formed, despite Egoyan’s different approaches in fleshing out their backstories. While Speedman’s Jeffrey seems to have a troubled past that feeds his strong, immediate dislike of Matthew, Egoyan only alludes to the detective’s history. Conversely, Nicole (Dawson) reveals her dark secrets during an awkward awards banquet speech. The melodrama of the moment sends The Captive into Lifetime movie territory.
Several extraneous subplots could have easily been jettisoned. The film becomes overburdened with procedural mystery contrivances: a poisoning, another abduction, a conspiracy ring, a ridiculous reunion and, finally, a car chase on an icy road, which adds action yet feels completely out of step with the film’s cerebral tone. If Egoyan and Fraser had concentrated on the psychological turmoil—from either Cassandra’s perspective or that of those left behind—the film might have better conveyed the complexity of human emotions in an intrinsically inhumane situation.
Director: Atom Egoyan
Writers: Atom Egoyan and David Fraser, based on a story by Atom Egoyan
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Mireille Enos, Rosario Dawson and Scott Speedman
Release Date: Dec. 5, 2014
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.