Every parent’s worst nightmare plays out in “The Captive,” Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan’s followup to “Devil’s Knot,” which opened in Japan last year.
In both of these films, a child disappears and the police eye the father as the most likely suspect. The difference is that “Devil’s Knot” was based on true events and the victim (a little boy) was killed along with two friends. The screenplay for “The Captive” was penned by Egoyan, and the victim — a 9-year-old girl — stays alive. And this is not a spoiler.
Regardless of their differences, both films were panned. Critics were especially severe toward “The Captive” when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014. It was booed, and a number of people walked out, but those responses seem undeserved and harsh.
“The Captive” marks Egoyan’s return to roots, so to speak. Set in Ontario during winter, it’s packed with the sinister ambience of his breakthrough film “The Sweet Hereafter.” Egoyan is clearly in his element here, though he falls short of duplicating the caliber of his best films, such as “Felicia’s Journey” and “Ararat.”
“I have a thing for snow,” Cairo-born Egoyan said during an interview last year. “It’s a great backdrop for human emotions, especially sadness and fear.”
Snow and the cold are vital factors in “The Captive,” as the characters are always looking up at a gray, wintry sky or trudging to cars on white roads. The story spans eight years and yet there are no depictions of spring or summer, no T-shirts and shorts or trees green with leaves. For Matthew (Ryan Reynolds) and Tina (Mireille Enos), the seasons cease to exist after their daughter Cass (played as a child by Peyton Kennedy and as a teenager by Alexia Fast) goes missing one winter evening just before her ninth birthday. Matthew and Cass are driving home when Matthew stops to pick up pies for dinner, while Cass waits in the car. But when he returns, she’s gone.
What ensues for Matthew and Tina is an ongoing nightmare that rips through their already fragile marriage and leaves them stunned with misery. They stay together primarily because Matthew is determined to find the kidnappers and is convinced they’re close by. Tina has kept her old job as a hotel cleaner for the same reason, though she’s not as energetic as Matthew in tracking down her daughter’s abductors. The police investigation, headed by two detectives (Rosario Dawson and Scott Speedman), doesn’t seem to get anywhere. At the back of everyone’s minds is the suspicion that Matthew staged the abduction.
Egoyan favors a very loose structure here, as the story dips in and out of different time frames, strewing fragments of information for the viewer to pick up and piece together. “The Captive” is a puzzle but an ultimately unsatisfying one. We see the perpetrator early in the story and know that Cass is alive — kept in a locked room with a piano to play and all the books she can read. She has the freedom to learn things and use her mind. The perpetrator’s mistreatment of Cass is implied but never shown, which is both creepy and confusing. We are kept in the dark about exactly what happens in that locked room and it feels as though the story is somehow siding with the kidnapper, making him out to be less of a monster than he is.
Eight years later, Matthew and Tina are a wreck, while Cass has grown into a teenager with brains, fortitude and plans of her own, which include escaping to see her parents again.
Cass is a fascinating character, especially when she begins playing mind games with her abductor, tipping the power scale and weakening his position in their relationship. She has grown up to be a smart and innovative young woman, and it will probably be hard for her parents to reconnect and for them all to be a family again. That chapter is closed off to the viewer though, and we can only surmise that tough times are still to come.