In September of 2015, in this very moment, if one were to try and pinpoint one of the leading causes of cinematic death, currently bordering on epidemic, it would have to be the staunch adherence-to-source-material disease that many filmmakers have advertised with self-praise. “We’re loyal to the book,” is a familiar, self-satisfied phrase, as if the idea of not changing a word in a story grants you instant integrity and also assures a remarkable movie. We’ve seen faithful adaptations like this fail in recent years (“Watchmen”), but of late, we’ve also seen true-life stories also rendered flaccid by adhering doggedly to the facts (“Freeheld”) and hoping they are enough (spoiler: they are not).
Very curious then is Paramount’s faith-based thriller “Captive,” which takes a real-life kidnapping and adds absolutely nothing to it. There’s so much to puzzle and ponder over with “Captive,” a movie that could be mistaken as bold with its obdurate approach, but is actually shockingly flat. And yet, also occasionally involving at times thanks to its lead actors. Rarely has a faith-based movie that a studio has largely abandoned and barely screened for critics been this surprisingly nuanced (at least compared to most movies cut from this kind of cloth). But playing like a 60-minute Lifetime drama stretched out into feature length form, “Captive” is barely a movie. The picture is about a woman who was randomly held hostage by a sociopathic escaped convict and was set free because she read aloud from Rick Warren’s best-seller, “The Purpose Driven Life,” a self-help book she initially had thrown away out of disinterest. There can be no spoilers in “Captive” as this is all the story the movie has to tell.
Beginning with a quote from Romans 5:20 — “Where sin abounded, grace abounded much more” — “Captive” opens by crosscutting between the lives of Ashley Smith (Kate Mara) and David Nichols (David Oyelowo), suggesting that fate will intertwine their lives. Smith is a meth-addict mother struggling to make ends meet who has lost custody of her daughter, while Nichols is about to be sentenced for rape. While Ashley struggles to stay clean and keep her menial job, Nichols is breaking out of jail and doing so in explosively brazen fashion, killing three people in the process, including a cop and the judge about to sentence him.
As a city-wide manhunt begins, led by a detective played by Michael K. Williams, as the felon violently carjacks and attacks and kills more innocent victims in an attempt to avoid capture. He even visits his newborn son, one that he only learned about a few days before his sentencing, and who is the impetus for his flight. Eventually, Nichols randomly comes upon Smith, traps her in her own apartment for one evening and a morning, and that’s it. The meat of the exploitative movie — violent black man kidnaps innocent white girl — is the emotional interplay between the killer and his captor, but it’s also surprisingly bereft of mind games, friction, or conflict, especially once it settles into a groove.
Dully shot with washed-out, lifeless interiors, but directed with a decent amount of competence by Jerry Jameson, what’s odd about “Captive” — a movie aimed at the Christian crowd, even though it’s a hard PG-13 that feels R-rated at times — is how it’s surprisingly cogently put together and yet utterly disposable. It’s also a religious movie that’s relatively subtle about its spiritual leanings, until it’s not, and then suddenly becomes a commercial for the “The Purpose Driven Life” (and to a lesser extent Smith’s account of her capture in her memoir “Unlikely Angel”).
Essentially a two-handed chamber drama for much of the picture, Oyelowo and Mara have pretty good chemistry, or as much as the thin screenplay will allow them, but they cannot salvage what feels like a play missing its third act, ending in a deeply anticlimactic fashion. It’s remarkable how immobile the story is, and while restrained elements of empathy for one another surface, no Stockholm Syndrome bonds begin to form, and no major tensions arise aside from brief paranoia when Nichols decides to snort some meth. Ashely thinks about escaping once or twice, but never acts on it.
What’s additionally bizarre about “Captive” is how it paints Nichols as a cold-blooded psycho-killer then begins to lean its sympathies in his direction. While the convict and victim are sequestered together, he begins to tell his story — he’s a man who was never given a chance, was cheated on by his wife, and was wrongly convicted for a crime he didn’t commit. And then, while “Captive” briefly humanizes him, it soon abandons that tract and its conclusion goes out of its way to remind the audience of all his crimes and all of the victims.
Co-starring Mimi Rogers as Ashley’s aunt and the guardian of her daughter, “Captive” is just really a weird, not-as-terrible-as-it-should-be movie until its dismal final act and its closing credits, which feature an “Oprah Winfrey Show” segment with the real-life Ashley Smith and “The Purpose Driven Life” author Rick Warren, and then you realize you’ve been duped into sitting through what feels like a half-finished movie as a kind of infomercial for his book. This blatantly crass and opportunistic finish undoes all of the minor goodwill formed by the film’s actors. You would normally say that the performers deserve a better movie (and Mara does), but Oyelowo actually produced this film, is a big supporter of the finished product, and has obvious spiritual bias. The fact of the matter is, there’s barely anyone I know that would read that screenplay (adapted by Brian Bird from Smith’s book about the events of her abduction) and think it’s a worthy or complete tale. And it makes one side eye their opinion of the otherwise talented actor.
Largely inert and undramatic, what you’re left with is a tedious sentiment: “by the grace of god” this horrible crisis ended without violence, explosives, or spark. Congratulations? [D+]