The home invasion thriller is a genre that typically engages with issues of class and human instinct. In first-rate examples like “Funny Games” and the recent Spanish entry “Kidnapped,” a small group of captives face off against their oppressors under exceedingly frightening circumstances, and the stand-off almost always leads to a violent outbreak. The criminals usually target affluent homes and rarely get away with it. Out of the tension between their motives and the victims’ passage into Darwinian survival mode, these movies explore the danger of envy with near-biblical finesse.
David Barker’s “Daylight” marks the most literal realization of that tendency, by portraying a kidnapped woman’s salvation through prayer. With the simplicity of a one-act play, Barker focuses on his pregnant female lead as she transitions from terrified captive to angel of justice, a premise that sometimes gives the story more weight than it earns. However, Barker’s screenplay demonstrates a conviction that its genre can command great importance, allowing it to transcend the easy shocks associated with the exploitation movie experience and create an entirely fresh rhythm.
Directing his sophomore feature (following the 1999 Sundance entry “Afraid of Everything”), Barker utilizes only the slightest exposition. Young couple Irene (Alexandra Mierhans) and Daniel (Aidan Redmond) are driving to the countryside for a family wedding when a pair of fast-talking kidnappers overtake their vehicle and force them to drive to an isolated vacation house. Initially presented as a pair of bumbling slapstick characters (after the carjacking, they realize neither can drive stick shift and force Daniel to take the wheel), the knife-wielding Renny (Michael Godere) and Leo (Ivan Martin) eventually reveal their menacing features. Daniel narrowly escapes a knife to the throat by promising he can coax Irene’s rich father to pay them a large sum, and so a third accomplice takes him into town while Irene stays behind with her moody overseers.
Once Daniel exits the picture, “Daylight” settles into its single set piece, with only occasional flashbacks to Irene’s life before the incident. She forms a strange bond with the two men, questioning their motives and provoking debate, amusingly getting on their nerves with her introspective interrogation. Asked to justify their behavior, Leo takes the pragmatist’s stance: “One thing leads to the next thing. Right now, this is the thing.” Eventually, however, her innocent prodding gets under their skin, and opens up the possibility of her salvation.
Unfortunately, Barker portrays Renny and Leo as broad, garish cartoons, which is at odds with his attempts to imbue the events with deeper meaning. Their villainy suffers from the Tarantino-like tendency to make familiar criminal archetypes overly fragile one moment and utterly insane the next. That dissonance only works if the world of the movie supports it. But “Daylight” moves at a slow, thoughtful pace, punctuating scenes with interstitial shots of moving clouds and elongated music cues that reflect Irene’s philosophical outlook. Renny and Leo stumble into her perspective from another, lesser movie.
However, “Daylight” mostly survives this setback with its cautiously executed suspense. Mierhans’ amazingly subtle performance keeps Irene’s progression into survival mode completely unseen until she finally chooses to act in the final minutes. “What do you pray for?” a friend asks her in a flashback. “For something to happen,” she says, and it sure does. Despite the spiritual backdrop, “Daylight” concludes with a secular lesson, by portraying one woman getting what she asked for from the gods of self-determination.
criticWIRE grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Hitting theaters several years after its initial film festival run, “Daylight” is traveling to several theaters around the country over the next several months thanks to the efforts of Cinema Purgatorio, so it will likely find small pockets of audiences around the country before settling into life on VOD.
It opens this week in New York at the Red Room (85 East Fourth Street).