After making a name for himself with moody dramas like “Exotica” and “The Sweet Hereafter,” Atom Egoyan hit a rough patch with a slew of uneven, mopey efforts, including the brooding “Adoration” and courtroom drama “The Devil’s Knot,” which opened last week. Now we have the premiere of Egoyan’s kidnapping procedural “The Captive,” which suggests the director has receded from the challenging work that put him on the map in the first place.
A lazily plotted and largely generic thriller, leading man Ryan Reynolds seizes yet another opportunity to tackle a darker, contemplative role while Egoyan’s cerebral efforts only serve to underscore the by-the-books melodrama. They only emerge unscathed because “The Captive” is so forgettable.
Like “Chloe,” this film applies Egoyan’s ponderous approach to genre conventions. But while “Chloe” devolved into camp, “The Captive” humorlessly plunges into a morose world riddled with bite-sized versions of the tragedies that often lie at the heart of Egoyan’s filmography.
Written by David Fraser, it’s an ensemble drama: Teen Cassandra (Alexia Fast) has spent six years in the captivity of the sexually deranged Mika (Kevin Durand), who keeps her locked in his basement, watching her bereaved parents on a remote camera. Tina (Mireille Enos) and Matthew (Ryan Reynolds) have split in the wake of Cassandra’s disappearance; meanwhile, Nicole (Rosario Dawson), the revered head of a pedophile investigation unit, joins forces with her moody partner Jeffrey (Scott Speedman) to gradually uncover the digitally enhanced kidnapping operation (which, like other Egoyan movies, allows for the ominous role of technology to encroach on the narrative).
Covering a six-year period, “The Captive” pointlessly skips around, first showing the raw anger shared by the couple immediately following Cassandra’s disappearance and then branching out to explore its impact on the investigators’ lives. Despite this tangled structure, “The Captive” remains predictable and flimsy plot as Matthew gradually decides to take matters into his own hands and track down his daughter. Featuring a premise echoed with far more involving ramifications in last year’s “Prisoners,” Egoyan’s story boils it down to simpler terms.
Set against the snowy Canadian landscape that has become the director’s milieu, “The Captive” maintains a reasonably disquieting atmosphere. Egoyan lands his best moment early on, when Cassandra’s kidnapping takes place offscreen as the director’s camera focuses on her father turning his back. Here he develops a genuinely suspenseful quality, but it comes and goes. A subplot involving the pedophile ring investigation gets a boost when Nicole runs a triumphant sting, which unfolds with a tight, satisfying build-up and resolution. This character could carry her own movie — but she’s relegated to a secondary role here.
Much of what follows tumbles as a thinly conceived cop yarn. Speedman’s detective figure makes a series of remarkably stupid decisions and the rest of the movie follows suit. The morbid relationship between Cassie and her kidnapper is tenuously conceived at best. Since the early days of her incarceration are left off-screen, the nature of her relationship with Mika strains from credibility (although it evidently involved sex abuse at a scarily early stage). Whether she suffers from a grotesque version of Stockholm Syndrome or simply wants to escape remains unclear.
Similarly, performances are all over the place. As the downbeat Tina, Enos blandly grimaces whenever the camera lingers on her face. (“I miss living,” she says. No kidding.) Reynolds shows some ferocity as a guilt-ridden father eager to take charge, but he’s largely relegated to the self-serious delivery that often handicap the vacant figures who populating Egoyan’s filmography. As the story’s demented villain, Durand retains an appropriately maniacal edge but with so few distinctive details developed around the character (he doesn’t like his day job!) the madman makes a less than credible antagonist.
Only Dawson manages to wrestle a distinctive persona out of the material, playing a cold, committed force of justice who emerges as its real hero. With recent credits like “Buried” and “The Voices,” Reynolds shows a penchant for portraying frazzled, unhappy men fighting insurmountable circumstances, but “The Captive” never gives him enough substance to develop much depth to his rumpled look.
In its climactic moments, “The Captive” arrives at a clichéd showdown that unifies its fragments in an uninspired resolution. Compared to some of Egoyan’s more recent, glaringly manipulative efforts, this clean approach comes as something of a relief, if only because the result is a mediocre genre effort rather than a monumental failure. But the greater tragedy is that a filmmaker once considered a unique voice has ventured into the fog of familiarity.
“The Captive” premiered this week at the Cannes Film Festival. A24 will release it in the U.S. later this year.