Meditations on loss both literal and figurative, the haunting yet humanistic films of Academy Award nominated writer-director Atom Egoyan are hard to shake.
As an audience of Alices ― in each puzzle-like picture we tumble through the rabbit hole ― landing headfirst in a contemporary but illusive Egoyan wonderland where we're quick to discover that nothing is as it seems.
Illuminating if ultimately unsettling, from The Sweet Hereafter to Felicia's Journey and beyond, Egoyan has spent his career holding up a microscope to the dangers that exist just below the surface of a world where smiles hide secrets and (much like objects in the rearview mirror) evil may be closer than it appears.
As the years go by, in Egoyan's latest aptly named effort The Captive, a heartbroken father played by Ryan Reynolds finds himself unable to look ahead ― literally and figuratively trapped in the past ― after discovering with a glance in his rearview that his nine year old daughter had vanished from sight.
Moving back and forth from past to present and in point-of-view, The Captive's maze-like narrative approach initially infuriates more than it fascinates.
Requiring us to figure out where each piece fits along the timeline while we struggle to process each scene ― we're introduced to multiple parties held captive by the same horrific moment, beginning with the kidnapped girl (who’s now an adult) as well as her captor who for years has been hiding in plain sight of both her parents and the police.
With this in mind it's no wonder that when the film screened at the Cannes Film Festival for its Palme d'Or qualifying showing, Egoyan's opus appeared under a title that emphasized the plural nature of its theme (as Un Captives) to better illustrate the grief of all involved.
Yet while it works either way, the singular name change suits the film well in not only ratcheting up the tension and immediacy but also by encouraging greater critical thinking on the part of the audience as we evaluate each captive one by one.
As a modern disciple of Hitchcock whose experimentation with the role of the viewer as voyeur has overwhelmed the Egyptian-born Canadian filmmaker's work since his American arthouse crossover hit Exotica roughly twenty years ago, Egoyan is clever enough to understand that in suspenseful storytelling, the true power comes from what isn't shown vs. what is visualized.
And this is especially imperative given the delicate subject matter of Captive which, to both the film as well as Egoyan's credit, feels far less exploitative than a typical episode of network television police procedural series.
Revisiting the same terrain he's explored throughout his undeniably eerie oeuvre including the complex and at times codependent relationship of good and evil that varies considerably from one film to the next, Captive plays particularly well as a thematic companion piece to Felicia's Journey.
While both films feel like updates on age-old fairy tales – echoing everything from Little Red Riding Hood to Hansel and Gretel to the aforementioned allusions to Alice in Wonderland, this time around he uses the cinematic looking glass to examine the role that storytelling plays on its own accord.
Trading in twisted role-play and dark storytelling on the deep web, we learn how a narrative can mean different things to different people.
However, unlike the way that the titular Felicia's Journey was placed in the hands of someone else, The Captive shows us in a variety of ways how words can keep not only hope but people alive as two of its characters make the choice to use the power of their stories to rescue themselves, whether or not they're in control in their current state.
A stronger execution of the same argument that he attempted to make in Chloe, although it’s structurally still something of a mess, The Captive grows bolder and more confident with time, resulting in one of Egoyan's most thrilling climaxes in years.
Nonetheless, the inclusion of an alternate ending on the newly released Lionsgate DVD makes you wish that he would've struck a greater balance between the two separate conclusions in order to give viewers a stronger sense of closure regarding one key subplot in particular.
Bolstered by its script as well as stellar support from Ryan Reynolds in an uncharacteristically serious turn ― despite its shortcomings, the film reminds viewers once again just how criminally underutilized he is in traditional leading man roles.
Intelligently crafted and undeniably suspenseful, like all of Egoyan's work, The Captive will linger in the mind for days.
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