The best thing about The Captive, Atom Egoyan’s entry in this year’s Official Competition at Cannes, is the way it doles out information slowly. Egoyan frames each shot so precisely so that we’re always aware of what we’re not seeing, creating suspense as things are revealed. We open on an icy, tall man, Mika (Kevin Durand), standing in a peculiarly formal manner, with his hands clasped behind his back, listening to opera and watching surveillance video: he may not be a mustache-twirling villain, but something is off. He goes downstairs in his home to see a girl: we see her in a room, playing a piano. It’s not until later in the film that we see the whole of her room, including her bathroom without any walls to separate it from the bedroom, and realize it’s a prison, and the man is her captor.
That The Captive remains captivating throughout, despite its under-developed characters is because Egoyan constructs the mystery so well. The main details of the plot are revealed in the first third as the film jumps around in time, with no major changes in hairstyles or subtitles to demarcate this, to reveal the details. He shows us the before, the directly after, and the long-time aftermath of a child abduction, leaving us to figure out what happened when. It’s fitting given that the couple, Matt (Ryan Reynolds) and Tina (Mireille Enos), are forever caught in the past since their daughter went missing even as they continue to live their lives.
Six years ago, Matt (Ryan Reynolds) took his ten-year-old daughter to buy pie after her skating practice and left her in his unlocked truck while he went in to pick it up. It was in the middle of nowhere, on a snowy day in Niagara: small town Canada is supposed to be safe, after all. We watch Matt going into the store from his truck, and the camera pushes closer and closer in on Matt until the truck is out of frame just long enough for something horrific to occur behind his back. His daughter, Cassandra, was taken.
When Matt goes to the cops, he finds himself dealing with the head of the missing children department, Nicole (Rosario Dawson), a righteous crusader, and her new partner, Jeffrey (Scott Speedman), who inexplicably suspects Matt may be guilty. The cops seem well-intentioned, but are ultimately not that helpful, in part because they have their hands tied: the only real way to contact the pedophiles is through children, something that’s absolutely forbidden for them to do. They do uncover a very creepy ring on the internet bent on luring young children into the lairs of pedophiles, only to be exploited, online, by a group of them: a terrifying prospect that’s not so far from plausible.
The tragic event tears apart Matt and his wife; she only interacts with him to venomously remind him that Cassandra disappeared on his watch. He spends his time racked with guilt, trying to work on his own search efforts, and he visits the rink where his daughter used to skate to watch her partner practice. She cleans hotels, in theory, but most of what we see of her is just her standing around looking morose in various hotel rooms, under surveillance put in place by Mika; he’s creepily well-connected in the construction industry.
Cassandra remains placid and calm in the company of her captor, although occasionally it seems like there’s a deeply buried anger and hurt. The trouble is, Mika clearly has her under constant surveillance, which means she’s forced to play her cards close to her chest. The unfortunate result is that Cassandra often feels like a blank canvas, and it’s a missed opportunity to show how trauma of this kind would affect her.
On the surface, each of the characters reacts in an authentic way, but the trouble is there’s nothing deeper. Tina is full of resentment and rage, but we never see her experience anything else, like really trying to carry on with her life under such a tragic burden. The detective, Jeffrey, makes multiple poor judgment calls, which are understandable in theory, but we never really understand the specific motivation behind them. Even Matt, the most compelling of the lot, doesn’t do much other than brood and feel ashamed.
The issue is mainly the script, as it tries to balance six protagonists who should be dealing with complicated emotions, while also hitting all the marks of a thriller. Egoyan does some top notch directing to keep the tension heightened, making the film work as a genre piece. The constant suspense can keep you from thinking too hard about the vacuousness of the characters, making it an OK film that’s only worth seeing once. It’s a shame because there are a lot of good ideas here, and it’s a chilling concept that deserves further explanation. Here’s hoping that the other two Canadian films in competition this year will be stronger entries.
Read the rest of our Cannes 2014 coverage here.