It’s often difficult to discern, particularly over the last decade of his career, what Atom Egoyan is after in his films, whether they’re intended as tony genre movies or as full-throttle explorations of grief. The films themselves normally reflect a worst-of-all-worlds collision of these potentialities. Egoyan has virtually no talent for mounting suspense (or is indifferent to eliciting that reaction from the audience), and his understanding of grief has been largely superficial since hitting his colossal career high point with The Sweet Hereafter nearly 20 years ago. Occasionally, the director will rouse himself to make something fun and trashy, such as Where the Truth Lies or Chloe, but there are many more movies that appear to wear their dully stifled unpleasantness as a badge of honor, stewing in a malevolent malaise that’s alternately absurd and interminable. The Captive, another of Egoyan’s peculiar dead-or-missing-children thrillers, finds him hitting a new low point.
As is always the case with Egoyan’s work, the mood is valued above all. The director immediately sets about reveling in the inchoate misery of Matthew (Ryan Reynolds) and Tina (Mireille Enos), a financially struggling couple with a daughter, Cass (Peyton Kennedy), who’s snatched one day out of the back of Matthew’s truck while he’s briefly stopped in a store picking up pie. Tina blames Matthew, who also blames himself, while a prestigious task force headed up by Jeffrey (Scott Speedman) and Nicole (Rosario Dawson) investigate Cass’s disappearance. In one of the film’s many ludicrous stand-offs, Jeffrey accuses Matthew of the crime right away, leading to a bit of fisticuffs that serves to estrange Matthew from Tina and from the evolving search for Cass as well as from the narrative at large. Meanwhile, we’re told immediately that Cass is locked up in a cabin with her kidnapper, Mika (Kevin Durand), a master welder who forces her to serve as a recruiting agent for his cabal of child torturers.
Egoyan’s characteristically self-conscious “good taste” is even more offensive here than it was in Devil’s Knot. The Captive has the plot of an intensely lurid thriller, but the director can’t bring himself to face that and actively tend to the story; instead, he trades in barely coherent, high-brow euphemisms. The luridness is used as a come-on, intended to charge the banal filmmaking with unearned tension. The wintry snowscapes alternate with close-ups that are refracted through mirrors and cameras so as to encourage a reading of this movie as a deceptively complex portrait of regret and voyeurism. The chronology, set over a period of eight years, is scrambled for no discernable reason, though it robs The Captive of any sense of escalating tension. One moment, Nicole’s investigating the case; the next, Jeffrey’s investigating Nicole’s disappearance at a fundraiser, a scene that Egoyan will eventually backtrack to when he should be tightening the screws on Matthew’s slow-dawning realization of Cass’s location and identity.
Most gallingly, Egoyan, for all his art-house posturing, evinces absolutely no curiosity as to what has emotionally happened to the girl following her kidnapping. Initially, the teenage Cass (now played by Alexia Fast) appears to be suffering from Stockholm syndrome, as she’s shown in her scenes with Mika to be complacent, obliging, and almost affectionate toward him. But her betrayal of Mika at the end refutes that read, which means what, exactly? That she’s luring other children to their doom voluntarily and of a sound mind? It’s implied, loosely, that Mika is using Cass’s family as leverage against the girl, but, once again, Egoyan mistakes maddening vagueness for ambiguity, diddling around with gimmicky elisions when he should be refining his focus on character behavior. The filmmaker’s so busy trying to transcend his material that he inadvertently courts inhumanity: He turns Cass into a sleepy-eyed “symbol” of something-or-another and denies her the stature of her pain.