The filmmakers struggle to find redeeming features in the uncomfortable and claustrophobic “Cleveland Abduction,” a sickening tale of brutality and rape that the main character endured for more than a decade. Taryn Manning stars as Michelle Knight, the 21-year-old single mother kidnapped by Ariel Castro, and held along with two other young girls in a house where he routinely abused them. Based on Knight’s book, the movie seeks a sense of uplift in her having survived the ordeal and overcome her victimization, but for those even remotely familiar with the facts, it’s difficult to make a case for watching.
Introduced in 2002 trying to regain custody of her young son from foster care, Michelle is in such a hurry to be on time for a meeting with social workers about securing his return that she agrees to accept a ride from someone she vaguely knows, Castro (“Breaking Bad’s” Raymond Cruz). He proceeds to lure her into his house with the promise of a free puppy for the boy, before knocking her out, hogtying her and suspending her half-naked body from the ground by wires.
“I can do whatever I want to you,” he hisses, and proceeds to prove the point, even entertaining family downstairs while she remains trussed up a floor above.
Things don’t get any better from there, as Michelle’s attempts to escape or alert neighbors are met with a right cross from her tormenter. Castro then abducts two more young girls (played by Samantha Droke and Katie Sarife), who Michelle seeks to encourage and protect, even helping to deliver one’s baby.
Directed by Alex Kalymnios from a script by Stephen Tolkin, the movie (which carries frequent “viewer discretion” warnings) is spare and grim. Yet as horrible as it is, with Cruz bringing a sense of crazy, unpredictable menace to Castro, the 70 minutes or so of screen time chronicling the 11 years Knight spent as his prisoner somehow manage to feel like too much and not nearly enough all at once.
Manning (“Orange Is the New Black”) does convey an ordinary quality that makes her situation feel all the more real and harrowing. Yet her quiet strength truly reveals itself at the end, where — having been rescued — she agrees to speak at Castro’s trial, while receiving support from a helpful nurse and an FBI agent (Pam Grier and Joe Morton, respectively, in roles that amount to little more than cameos).
Lifetime is well known for producing these kind of movies, capitalizing on the appetite for ripped-from-the-headlines stories that the broadcast networks abandoned years ago (although ABC’s newsmagazine “20/20” revisited the case earlier this week). Based on the success of the formula, the cabler can argue it’s simply giving its viewers what they want, which explains its acquisition of another child-abduction story, “Stockholm, Pennsylvania,” scheduled for May 9.
Still, “Cleveland Abduction” is ugly, brutal and hard to watch. And while that reflects the facts behind the story, just because it’s true is hardly sufficient rationale for agreeing to wallow in a tale of such agonizing cruelty.