Released under a marketing and publicity blackout singlemindedly dedicated to hiding the subject matter of the film, “Trapped” is a pretty skillfully handled domestic thriller about a criminal activity that, while always upsetting, is especially noxious now due to the too many recent tragic and highly publicized instances of it. It would seem that no one, not even Sony, would wish this film to actually become popular in theatrical release, so the distrib will probably soon slide the film out of circulation just as quietly as it launched it, with no advances screenings, no star interviews and a generalized revenge-themed campaign. Fact that this female slant on the 1996 Mel Gibson hit “Ransom” generates some genuine tension, features some provocatively nasty moments and toplines some good thesps in very good form suggests promise as a rental item down the line.
The premise centers on child abduction, which here involves, as it has in an unnaturally high percentage of the recent cases, a cute little blond girl. One day, gorgeous mom Karen Jennings (Charlize Theron) sees her husband Will (Stuart Townsend) off on a brief business trip, returns to her beautiful Portland, Ore., home with daughter Abby (Dakota Fanning) and within moments is confronted with a missing child and a kidnapper, Joe Hickey (Kevin Bacon), introducing himself and telling her how it’s all going to go down.
If this kick-starting sequence of events sounds preposterously unlike any real-life abduction case you’ve ever heard of, screenwriter Greg Iles, adapting his novel “24 Hours,” soon makes the situation interesting, and the thesps make it emotionally credible. As a prologue has suggested, Joe is in this for the money; he’s done four identical kidnappings before, and if Karen follows his rules and does exactly as he insists, she’ll get her daughter back alive in 24 hours.
Obviously a shrewd guy who’s thought of everything, Joe has booby-trapped his scheme to prevent retaliation by the victims. Joe’s portly misfit cousin Marvin (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who has taken Abby to a remote location, must receive a cell phone call from Joe every half-hour; if Karen were to harm Joe, thus disrupting the flow of calls, Marvin would immediately kill the girl. And to prevent husband Will from returning and gumming up the works, Joe’s scuzzy wife Cheryl (Courtney Love) is holding him prisoner in his hotel room and is also in regular phone contact.
In another plot invention that’s initially off-putting due to its unlikelihood, in addition to being terribly familiar after “Panic Room,” Abby is asthmatic and needs frequent medication. This is the first of several little surprises that makes this kidnapping different from Joe’s other jobs; the second is that Karen is an unexpectedly tough cookie for a trophy wife, one who is forced to acknowledge the inadvisability of fighting back but continues to look for any opportunity to do so.
Director Luis Mandoki presents all of this in rich dark hues, restless camera moves and jagged editing that combine to create an atmosphere of dark and ominous unease. And while the kidnapping methods may seem far-fetched, the helmer keeps the focus so intently on the emotional moment that the drama goes beyond the cliches of bad guy sadism-and-glee and good guy peril-and-devastation to achieve at least a measure of credibility.
The cause is furthered by cutting the villains not from the same one-dimensional black cloth but by giving them some individual dimension; each also has an Achilles heel that eventually becomes evident. Marvin isn’t entirely there upstairs, which makes him an ideal orders-taker from Joe’s point of view, while Cheryl has some crucial child issues and begins to doubt her husband when the plan begins going off track.
As for Joe, he admits to Karen along the way that he selects the families he’s going to victimize by their wealth, the kid being the right age, and the attractiveness of the mother. Fact that Joe intends to get intimate with her reps a weakness that Karen is able to capitalize upon, as she turns the tables in a cringe-inducing way that suggests that Joe probably hasn’t seen “Dial M for Murder.”
The late-going is marked by multiple reversals, climaxed by an unusual chase on a forest-enveloped highway involving two vehicles and a sea plane. Wrap-up features some startling action, but is undercut by the lack of extras who should have been in the backdrop for the final struggle among the principals, given that dozens of cars are strewn around the vicinity.
Even if the film’s turn-off factor is considerable and the believability quotient is variable, the strength of the acting across the boards bolsters the drama perhaps more than it deserved. Theron’s Karen is fierce and determined without ever coming off as a simple movie heroine; one can readily accept that this is a woman who’s long been self-assured and able to handle herself in any situation, even if she’s never faced anything like this before. Bacon, who dominates by force of his character’s evil, is well practiced at insinuating and threatening spins, and he brings his full arsenal to bear here.
Fanning, recently so precocious in “I Am Sam,” remains so here. Love, Vince and Townsend bring nice shadings to their work as well, even if the latter seems a tad young for the role of a highly successful doctor and drug inventor.
Initial cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski (who also, coincidentally, shot “Ransom”) died suddenly after just a week of shooting. Frederick Elmes took over and, per press notes, followed the visual plan that Mandoki and Sobocinski had worked out over long preparation. In any event, lensing is splendid, bringing great vitality to the film. A fine contribution was also made by the since-deceased legendary production designer Richard Sylbert. Jerry Greenberg’s editing supplies a heightened pulse, while John Ottman’s score brings out the story’s discordant emotions in atypical ways.
Although most lensing was done in British Columbia, a “Mexico unit” end credit block indicates that some shooting was done south of the border; a prize goes to anyone who can identify what footage that might have been.