There’s a pattern I’ve noticed in films that were booed off the stage at Cannes. Often they are just movies that can’t quite be processed yet and haven’t found their audience due to challenges, dense themes or unconventional execution that simply isn’t received well off the bat. They’re usually rich, deep pieces that just need a little time to settle into the landscape before reaching deserved status, whether cult or beaten path. Atom Agoyan’s The Captive is one such film, a masterful meditation on loss and unrest following the kidnapping of a young girl whose parents simply cannot put her memory to rest.
On a remote, snowy stretch of Ontario highway, landscaper Ryan Reynolds stops at a diner for a quick second and in that second, his ten year old daughter vanishes without a trace. The film shows several sides of the whole scenario but chooses to display them non-sequentially so we end up as confused and disoriented as the characters must feel in such a situation. Reynolds and his wife (Mireille Enos) do their best to grieve but the event drives a wedge in between them. The two cops assigned to the case are an impatient hotshot (Scott Speedman) and an intuitive specialist (Rosario Dawson) but even they grasp desperately at straws in their ongoing investigation into child abuse. What’s interesting is that the film shows you pretty much in the opening scene what happened to their daughter and who took her. In the present time she’s eighteen and has been held captive by an unnervingly calm weirdo (Kevin Durand) and used as an online lure to catch other children for the pedophile ring he runs. So the suspense here isn’t really about ‘what happened to her’ and more like ‘how does it affect the people in her life and what comes next?’
So then, why was this received so badly? Well, I’d imagine it’s the structure and overall information passed to the audience, or lack thereof in cases. The events of the film are shown completely out of order, some sequences even split up so you don’t get the impact of the latter half of a scene until later on in the narrative. Additionally, when the end rolls around there are still many questions left unanswered and we get the sense that a great deal of the story is left out of our sight and minds, buried under the proverbial snowbanks that blanket the breathtakingly gorgeous visual palette of the film. It’s often tough for audiences to make do when left with a difficult, opaque and incomplete story, and the natural reaction can often be frustration or open hostility (just ask David Lynch, who has a film of his own that was verbally bashed at Cannes and is now considered his masterwork). Narratives like that are like protein for my senses though, and the gut reaction I have is always good, which often results in me being on a hill somewhat alone in enjoying divisive films. This is one of my favourite thrillers in recent years because of how unique it is. Reynolds has never been better displaying the raw anguish of a father who both blames himself and rages at the forces of darkness around him, while Enos embodies desperate grief in heartbreaking fashion when tormented by her daughter’s captors. Dawson grounds her cop role in empathy and dignity, while Durand looks like a vampire slinking from room to room observing unspeakable things on video monitors and somehow seeming like both a moustache twirling villain and a restrained one. Alexia Fast is haunting as the eighteen year old incarnation of their daughter, she plays it strangely lucid and does a beautifully eerie cover of Jennifer Castle’s ‘Remembering’ that echoes across the snowy landscape and bookends the film in grave but gorgeous ambiguity. As for Egoyan, he isn’t interested in pleasing the crowd or eliciting pleasant reactions, he wishes to tell a difficult, tragic story in an appropriate fashion. He could have made it straightforward, satisfactory and easy to digest, but where’s the fun in that? A masterpiece in my eyes.