Atom Egoyan’s 14th feature tells a tale of lost children and grieving parents unfolding under wintry gray skies, but otherwise we’re about as far removed from the mastery of “The Sweet Hereafter” as we could be in “The Captive,” a ludicrous abduction thriller that finds a once-great filmmaker slipping into previously unentered realms of self-parody. Attempting to meld his traditional preoccupations with guilt and bereavement, voyeuristic technology and achronological storytelling with a “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”-style procedural, Egoyan leaves a strong cast flailing to keep up with a contrived and fatally unconvincing drama that makes the recent “Prisoners” look like a masterpiece in retrospect. News of the film’s acquisition by U.S. distrib A24 broke shortly before its press screening at Cannes, where it was greeted with a smattering of boos; beyond the Croisette, mass indifference rather than contempt seems the likely reaction.
It’s neither pleasant nor surprising to report that Egoyan’s new film is the latest in a string of clunkers, following 2009’s “Chloe” and the just-released “Devil’s Knot.” But what makes the new film particularly dispiriting is the way it seems to deliberately engage with tropes, themes and images that loyal fans will recall from the filmmaker’s career-defining work of nearly two decades ago (including his ’90s masterpieces “Exotica” and “The Sweet Hereafter”), raising perhaps unreasonable early expectations that we might be seeing a throwback, and perhaps even a comeback, in the making.
Once again we are presented with an array of wounded characters whose tightly interconnected relationships are gradually revealed over the course of a narrative that occasionally shifts, without warning, into the distant past. At the core of the story is the kidnapping of 9-year-old Cass (Peyton Kennedy), who vanished into thin air (quite literally, somewhere in the high-altitude reaches of northern Ontario) when her father, Matthew (Ryan Reynolds), left her in his pickup truck for five minutes to buy a pie. Matthew’s wife, Tina (Mireille Enos), has never forgiven him for letting their daughter out of his sight. But as it’s revealed soon enough, there’s more to blame here than a father’s momentary neglect, as Cass was being stalked all along by a frighteningly resourceful, tech-savvy pedophile ring.
Eight years on, the teenage Cass (Alexia Fast) is very much alive but not exactly well, sealed away in a vault-like bedroom by the creepy Mika (Kevin Durand, sporting a perv-alert mustache). It’s characteristic of the film’s tastefully tawdry approach that we never fully grasp the nature of the relationship between captor and captive, although we can infer that it includes past sexual abuse and a measure of Stockholm syndrome, given Cass’ shrugging acceptance of her fate. If anything, Mika seems to really get off on exploiting the grief of her parents, his state-of-the-art network of computers and hidden cameras allowing him to spy on (and even manipulate) Tina in the hotel rooms where she works as a housekeeper.
As if that weren’t tangled enough, the film also gives us Scott Speedman and Rosario Dawson as a pair of detectives (and lovers) who investigate crimes against children, and whose own personal traumas have led them to adopt peculiar, not always professional approaches to the job. While the tough but compassionate Nicole (Dawson) meets with Tina for regular one-on-one counseling sessions, the more volatile Jeffrey (Speedman) suspects Matthew of having sold his own daughter into child slavery, mainly because he reminds Jeffrey of “somebody from my past.” “This is the present!” snaps Nicole, in one of the more groan-worthy lines in Egoyan and David Fraser’s laboriously transparent script.
The production features a typically high level of craftsmanship by the director’s regular collaborators, with a strong contribution by d.p. Paul Sarossy (beautifully capturing the region’s desolate snowy vistas in widescreen) and an obtrusively droning score by Mychael Danna. Performance-wise, Reynolds and Enos come off the most sympathetic here, realizing a handful of affecting moments as desperate parents whose marriage has been brought low by their own sense of guilt and impotent rage. Dawson and Speedman don’t fare as well, saddled as they are with backstories that seem to trail off just as they’re about to reveal something interesting, and they’re particularly ill served by perhaps the script’s most misguided development, in which Mika and his all-seeing, all-knowing network of kidnappers set their eyes on Nicole.
The implications of watching another individual — a long-standing Egoyan obsession from films including “The Adjuster,” “Exotica” and his last promising effort, 2008’s “Adoration” — are duly addressed here. One intriguing scene shows Nicole, Jeffrey and their fellow officers attempting to find potential pederasts online, masquerading as young kids and at one point even using a childhood photo of Nicole as (jail)bait. At another point, Jeffrey even tries to set a trap using his own niece (Ella Ballentine), who seems to exist for just this narrative purpose — a twisted development that a smarter film might have woven into a subtle statement about the potential pitfalls of pursuing justice at any cost, and the intimate ways in which victims, villains and rescuers are bound together in the wake of a festering tragedy.
Indeed, “The Captive” always seems to be clearing its throat in preparation for just such a statement, but it’s hamstrung at every moment by its inability to reconcile its creaky B-thriller trappings with its artier inclinations. It’s not just that Egoyan can’t seem to decide what kind of film he wanted to make, but that the two options have effectively canceled each other out. The deftness with which the helmer manipulated time in his earlier pics eludes him in this generic procedural context (not aided by the fact that no one here seems to age in the slightest over the course of eight years), leaving us with obfuscation but no genuine sense of mystery.
Similarly, the decision to divide the film’s narrative focus evenly across the ensemble, as if to allow these characters to emerge in all their painful dimensions (well, except Mika, whose most painful dimension is his attempt to sing an aria from “The Magic Flute”), merely has the effect of diluting the suspense and exposing the characters for the painfully thin constructs that they are. Everyone here, it predictably emerges, is a captive to something — to anger, to shame, to their own unspeakable compulsions — but by movie’s end, it’s only Egoyan’s undeniable filmmaking talent that still feels held hostage.