The first shot of “Kidnapped” (Secuestrados) shows an anonymous man struggling to breathe inside the plastic bag crudely wrapped around his head. It’s no stretch to view this harrowing close-up as a physical representation of the impressively nerve-wracking experience that follows. Spanish director Miguel Ántel Vivas has crafted a seriously intense real-time home invasion thriller that crosses a few lines while inventing some new ones. The situation and its execution offer nothing new, but Vivas finds room to innovate with the prospects of cinematic dread.
Even viewers too thin-skinned for the horrific scenario should appreciate Vivas’s bold formalism. Using twelve unbroken takes, occasional split screens and ramping up the suspense far past its conventional boundaries, “Kidnapped” follows a wealthy family from the mundane details of moving into their new home through the long night they spend with their mysterious captors. The movie suggests a cross between Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” (minus the funny) and Mike Figgis’s “Timecode,” creating perhaps the most unnerving experiment in Bazinian realism ever made (unless you count Gaspar Noé’s “Enter the Void,” which makes “Kidnapped” look downright commercial). Vivas ramps up the discomfort of a basic scenario until the dominant feeling amounts to a relentless punch in the gut.
After its curious prologue, “Kidnapped” reveals its trio of would-be victims: Jaime (Fernando Cayo) and Marta (Ana Wagener) squabble about small-time troubles as they settle into their new abode, including menial issues like toothaches and the familiar rebellion of their teenage daughter Isa (Manuella Vellés). Then, with the abrupt crash of a broken window, a group of strangers break into the home and the sudden onslaught of violence begins. Obeying the gruff orders of their captors, Jaime gets slapped around before the leader of the group takes him on a ride to the ATM machine.
Cutting between this late night journey and the mother-daughter struggle to survive at home, Vivas dwells in the traumatic nature of the events as they unfold. The performances are focused when they could easily become shrill: Cayo displays a man attempting to keep his cool, his eyes betraying untold levels of fear beneath the surface, and the women appear to melt in a pool of their own fright.
The long take strategy means certain images linger on the screen. At one point, Vivas establishes the distressing sight of mother and daughter, hands bound and mouths gagged as they sit on either side of a masked man watching television. The action routinely builds to a series of grim climaxes, including rape and murder, but these more extreme instances have less raw power than Vivas’s ability to enforce the lingering sense that anything can happen.
Once the set-up comes together, the real-time dynamic naturally heightens the tension, as Vivas forces us to experience the entire event alongside its victims. He never defines a moral backbone (or lack thereof), but does seem to empathize with the hostages, even though he avoids guaranteeing their safety.
That’s part of the thrill ride: He introduces a split-screen device on two occasions, the second of which concludes by merging both halves in a triumphant union that cleverly toys with viewer expectations. It’s easy to write off this been-there-done-that approach as the kind of simplistic filmmaking giddiness associated with an unfocused newbie, but Vivas has obvious confidence in his stylistic indulgences and pulls them off with sizable expertise.
The twisted nature of “Kidnapped” probably means it won’t receive the same degree of scrutiny allotted to “Timecode,” although Vivas does a better job of blending his experiment with the actual story at hand. Vivas has production values to sustain his initiative, but that doesn’t make it any easier to endure. The movie begs for a cooperative audience. I saw “Kidnapped” at its world premiere screening at Fantastic Fest, where the wilder moments were met with applause and nobody fled the theater. I gather that was the rare crowd willing to endure its disquieting narrative trickery until its supremely bitter end.