A feature-length trailer produced on a Lifetime-movie budget and seemingly scored by a Kronos Quartet cover band, The Tortured is precisely the type of schlockly representation of pedophilia—the act and the moral panic it provokes—that Markus Schleinzer’s no less problematic Michael haughtily attempts to refute. Rather than understand—or “humanize,” Schleinzer might say—its child-snatching perv, it presents him as a shrieking, makeup-wearing ghoulie, one who doesn’t feel realistically based on the memories of an abuse survivor (though it should be noted that screenwriter Marek Posival did cut his teeth as a second assistant director on Death Wish V: The Face of Death and made-for-TV trash with telling titles like Naked City: Justice with a Bullet and When Secrets Kill), but sprung from the imagination of The Silence of the Lambs’s biggest and most apologetic fan.
Robert Lieberman’s Perverted Justice advert spins its wheels with scene after scene impatiently cut like a montage sequence: of a serial killer nabbing little Ben Landry (Thomas Greenwood) when his father, Craig (Jesse Metcalfe), goes inside the house for a sec; of Craig chasing after the getaway vehicle to no avail, justifiably hounding a passerby for her cellphone; of the serial killer putting on his worst Laura Dern face for Ben (unseen but cloyingly ADR’ed into the scene); of Craig and his wife, Elise (Erika Christensen), drifting apart following the discovery of Ben’s body. And there are montages within montages, mostly of Elise and Craig enjoying life with their little bundle of joy—more sensory assaults for fake artistry’s sake, though by and large to manipulatively fuel the emotions behind an unexpectedly violent agenda put into motion after the killer cuts a plea deal and is sentenced to only 10 years.
In what plays as an unintentional depiction of White People Problems, a pudgy black police officer discovers Ben’s body after trembling his way through a creepy basement filled with caged animals (some dead) and getting spooked by a loose falcon—all while a record of “Hush, Little Baby” conveniently skips on its signature lyric. Such is the typical hoariness of this hilariously inappropriate provocation, which goes on to depict Craig and Elise’s psychological coping ritual as a 12-step whiplash of Screenwriting 101 contrivances: she blames him for Ben’s death; they stop fucking; she sorta seriously suggests they torture and kill Ben’s murderer; he blows her off; she moves out; he comes around; they initiate the grisly plan; and she wonders if they’re lowering themselves to the perv’s level.
There’s something to the film’s implausible, better-left-unsaid ending: a serious inquiry into the worth—the actual consciousness (literal and figurative)—of eye-for-an-eye retribution. But it’s an unrealized promise, subsumed as it is beneath a brutally artless adherence to genre convention. The tortured of the film’s title are not only Elise, Craig, and Ben, even his killer, but audiences too, victims of the filmmakers’ second-rate artistry and noncommittal moral realism. In the end, the characters may not learn anything, but we certainly gather that adhering to the Dirty Harry playbook is an efficient way of spicing things up in the bedroom.