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The Captive has Reynolds, Egoyan on the edge of their seats

Matthew (Ryan Reynolds) clings to his daughter, Cass Lane (Alexia Fast), in Atom Egoyan’s The Captive.

Neither man would claim to have a perfect track record when it comes to making movies. Actor Ryan Reynolds experienced one very public flame-out in 2011, when his potential superhero franchise The Green Lantern failed to ignite; and another two years later, when his ghost-cop movie R.I.P.D. was dead on arrival. Director Atom Egoyan's last film, the true-crime tale Devil's Knot, came on the heels of four documentaries about the same subject, and had many viewers scratching their heads about why he bothered.

But neither was prepared for the vitriol that came their way when their joint effort, The Captive – a new drama about a girl who is kidnapped and imprisoned for eight years, and her parents, who can't escape their rage and sorrow – screened in the prestigious, 18-film competition section at the Cannes Film Festival last May. At a morning press screening, some critics left early; others booed. A few scathing reviews appeared immediately, and more piled on.

"I wasn't at that screening, so I don't quite know what happened," Egoyan said in an interview this week. "But I've read those reviews, and one cannot deny there were awful, virulent, extreme reactions." Egoyan wonders if the material was too troubling (the girl's captor is part of a pedophile ring). A friend who attended the press screening posits that the movie felt flawed, and out-classed by the other competition films.

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Either way, Egoyan went to the gala premiere that night with low hopes. He gathered his actors – Reynolds and Mireille Enos, who play the girl's parents; and Rosario Dawson, who plays a police investigator – into a room beforehand, and said to them, "We had a troubled response this morning, so this won't go as we thought." He'd heard the sound in Cannes before: the seats clacking as audience members up and left. Though he wouldn't hear it that night – in fact, the film received a standing ovation – "the whole screening was awful for me," Egoyan admits. "I kept waiting for the moment people would start booing and leaving." Audiences can soon judge for themselves: The film opens in select cities on Friday.

For me, there's only one reason to loathe a film, and that's if I feel the filmmakers have disdain for their audience. The Captive doesn't qualify; it's clear that Egoyan is trying to say something meaningful about the effect of time on grief, anger and love. In our interview, he keeps drifting into extended, present-tense descriptions of the characters and their fates, as if he wants to convince me to care about them, as if they're real people he's still puzzling out. (Example: Discussing Scott Speedman's character, a cop who believes Reynolds killed his daughter, Egoyan says, "He makes a major transgression – even though he says he has permission, which I don't believe for a second.")

Egoyan's script for The Captive was triggered by real-life cases – a boy who'd gone missing in Victoria (where Egoyan was raised) whose birthday is celebrated every year by parents who are still waiting for him to return; and the four-year investigation of an alleged, high-profile pedophile ring in Cornwall, Ont., that ended in 2009. It's also the latest in a string of Egoyan's films that deal with children in peril – a subject that's gripped him since his 20s, when he learned that a close female friend had been abused by her father for years, without Egoyan ever suspecting it.

"I had no idea that was possible," he says now. "And her father was this very charismatic public figure. Maybe that gives my films their tone. It's a particular way of seeing a situation, where I'm trying to understand how it could be sustained. There's this process of enchantment, somehow. The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica, even Felicia's Journey – they feel like dark fables because that's the world the abuser has to create. It's a distorted, malevolent version of a myth that we're all raised with, the notion of love being this separate world."

Reynolds, who was born in Vancouver in 1976, grew up revering Egoyan, and was "thrilled" to finally work with him. "Atom never eliminates possibility," he said in a phone interview, where he was a master of the light joke and the modest self-putdown. "He's creatively generous. You can approach his scenes, involving dark subject matter, from any angle, and Atom welcomes it. Someone said to me that a great director listens to his movie, and that's him."

Reynolds's work here, as a grieving father who's also simmering with rage, is some of the best he's done, but he admits that his career has been "all over the place. I've never rooted myself in any genre or size of film. Part of that is a success story, and part probably highlights a lack of success."

He started working at 13. "I ostensibly should be on my fourth rehab by now, and my sixth mug shot, but I've managed to buck some odds," he says. "I was never a star as a kid. In my 20s, I loved working, travelling, and riding motorcycles too much to use that time to get high or shit-faced. And I had good parents, and three older brothers. My father and one brother are cops. We didn't spend our days screwing around in our house; we were either putting one foot in front of the other or sleeping."

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He's learned not to get too wrapped up in his characters, because "you're unbearable if you do. I couldn't do that to my friends and my wife." (He's married to actress Blake Lively, and was married for three years to Scarlett Johansson.) He's worked with actors who do get caught up, "and it's tough," he continues. "I once stood across from a guy in the lunch line who was giving me the hairy eyeball because his character didn't like mine. I just wanted to say, 'Why don't you put the Greek salad down and take a few deep breaths?'" He's learned to control the things he can, and "let go of everything else."

So, though it stings when a movie of his doesn't work – "especially a movie like Green Lantern, that's created exclusively to cater to an outcome" – Reynolds has realized that career valleys can lead to opportunities he might not have found if he'd had to spend the next six years pumping iron in the gym and making sequels. "If Green Lantern had made a billion dollars, I don't know that I would have had the strength of character to challenge myself beyond that," he says.

And isn't that what film should be: a challenge? I'd much rather watch a movie that tries to engage with me, even if it doesn't succeed, than one that wants me to stop thinking. True movie lovers accept that some have to fail. Because risking failure is the only way to make something new.

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