True-crime saga can't help but intrigue, though the execution falls short of its full potential.
The first English-language feature from Gallic writer-helmer Jean-Paul Salome (“Arsene Lupin,” “Belphegor”), “The Chameleon” chronicles a young man’s return to bayou-country Louisiana after four years of abduction and abuse. But his identity grows increasingly doubtful, and the family he was purportedly taken from might be keeping some secrets, too. Like last year’s “All Good Things,” this fictionalized take on a still unresolved true-crime case of deception and disappearance can’t help but intrigue, though the execution falls short of its full potential. Opened on Landmark screens in four U.S. cities Friday, pic should find longer life via cable and VOD.
The sudden reappearance of Nicholas Randall (Canada’s Marc-Andre Grondin, “C.R.A.Z.Y.”) causes a stir, as the boy vanished and was presumed dead long ago. Amid the ensuing media hubbub, he informs authorities that at age 12 he was kidnapped, taken to Europe by a “French sect” (hence the accent), raped and tortured.
But he’s vague about further details and doesn’t cooperate with doctors, counselors or the Baton Rouge FBI agent, Jennifer Johnson (Famke Janssen), assigned to trace the perps. Any physical changes are chalked up to the huge gap between childhood and near-adulthood, while post-traumatic stress seems to explain his fuzzy recall of his life before the kidnapping.
Nicky’s problematic, rough-hewn family welcomes him back in variable fashion. Sister Kathy (Emilie de Ravin), happily married to Brian (Brian Geraghty) and the most stable of the bunch, is almost hysterically happy to see him. Mother Kimberly (Ellen Barkin, laying on the trailer-trash vibe pretty thick) is guarded and mercurial, while black-sheep half-brother Brendan (Nick Stahl) acts outright hostile.
It doesn’t take Johnson long to start questioning whether the prodigal son really is who he says he is. Eventual revelations regarding this and the rural Louisiana clan’s unsavory past ought to take the viewer more by surprise, however. Salome’s competent but less than forceful approach doesn’t work up much suspense or mystery; pic might have worked better if it had used Nicky as our exclusive guide, one only gradually revealed as an unreliable narrator. Instead, we’re encouraged to identify with Janssen’s skeptical-outsider figure, lending the tale a somewhat routine TV-procedural feel.
Barkin’s scenery gumming aside, perfs are adequate to good, as is the packaging. The actual case that inspired “The Chameleon” unfolded in Texas, not Louisiana, a few years earlier than depicted here. Its titular protagonist might well support other film treatments, as this is just one chapter in a very long, complicated tale that could be handled in the seriocomic mode of “Catch Me If You Can” or “The Informant.”