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The Captive

Directed by Atom Egoyan

Starring Ryan Reynolds, Mireille Enos

Early reviews for Atom Egoyan’s The Captive have been blisteringly harsh, with critics declaring the thriller everything from crass to ludicrous. There was even a scattering of boos at Friday morning’s screening. So it doesn’t seem like a Palme d’Or is in Egoyan’s future, but is the lambasting justified? My reaction is that it’s overkill, in some ways a reflection of a sensibility shift from the nineties and its taste for complexity and ambiguity, which is now dismissed as recherche and pretentious. Egoyan, after all, is the same director who was a Grand Prize winner and double Oscar nominee for 1997’s The Sweet Hereafter, which was full of ambiguities. In fact, one jury member who may very well like it is jury head Jane Campion, whose films also pursue sexual danger zones and uncomfortable behaviour.

The plot is textbook abduction thriller: fairly familiar imperilled children and rich-folk-up-to-no-good stuff that made the recent HBO series True Detective a critical hit. Ryan Reynolds plays Matt, a struggling landscaper in Niagara Falls; his wife Tina (The Killing’s Mireille Enos) works as a hotel maid. One wintry day, on the way back from his nine-year-old daughter Cass’s skating practice, Matt stops to pick up a pie. When he returns to his truck, the girl is gone.

Movie dramas these days, largely shaped by serial television, are all cliffhangers, all explosive resolution. The Captive isn’t like that. The detectives on the case (Rosario Dawson and Scott Speedman), who specialize in child-abduction cases, initially suspect Matt, but the whole story fragments like a dropped crystal, with the time frame jumping around over eight years as the investigation crawls along. Both detectives have things in their past that push them. The couple’s trauma exposes cracks in their relationship: his irresponsibility, her anger. Reynolds is very good; Enos, broodingly intense as usual. And while I’m less happy with the cops (some hint of Speedman’s backstory would have helped), the acting isn’t a problem.

I can’t claim The Captive really works. There are some outright clunkers in the script (“We could do this here or down at the station,”), and a black-widow character in a bad wig (Christina Horne) who slips a mickey into someone’s drink, like something out of an antique melodrama. There’s even an convenient overheard conversation at an ice rink that felt like old-time stage business. But the biggest challenge here is the attempt to blend the pedestrian thriller and the larger, madder world of operatic emotions, fantasy and archetype. Given the film begins with the villain (Kevin Durand, and no, that’s not a spoiler) listening to the Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute (“The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart. Death and despair flame about me!) viewers should be on the alert that this is not naturalistic drama. The same could be said of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which had a similar oppressively foreboding score and a far more outlandish plot, which was rated by Sight and Sound critics as the greatest film of all time.

What irritates people about The Captive, I suspect, is that it’s a film about child abuse (though it never gets graphic) that doesn’t contain any conventional catharsis. Also, a lot of it is unfashionably “meta:” There’s a recurring trope in Egoyan’s work about a Scheherazade-like character that delays punishment by storytelling. And at the plot’s hall-of-mirrors centre, there’s a cult. Not of de rigueur villain perverts, but of voyeurs who use hidden cameras to feed on the pain of the victims’ family and friends. They are stand-ins for all of us ghouls who shake our heads and thrill to these true and fictional sex crime dramas. |And who, even a critic, wants to be told that their pleasure is morally complicated?