Downward spiralling psyches in The Captive

Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan customarily delivers powerful images, juxtaposing eerie shots of landscapes with restrained visuals which hint at dark deeds. Recently, however, his poor writing has unsuccessfully melded exploitative moviemaking with art-film milieu.

He’s at his best when, like a ventriloquist, we don’t see his lips move — the mannequin that is his artwork comes alive and seems to live independently. I saw flashes of this brilliance in The Captive.

A father (Ryan Reynolds) leaves his tired daughter sleeping in the rear seat of his truck to go into a bakery on a cold, snowy day. The camera cuts to an eerie zooming shot of the store’s window from outside the store as flurries rapidly fly from one end of the frame to the other; we sense something amiss but we are unaware of the details.

The man returns. His truck is empty. His daughter is gone. We never see the act, only its effects: the parents are shattered as the wife blames the husband, and the abductor is composed yet on the verge of breaking.

Dissimilar to genre flicks such as Dennis Villeneuve’s child abduction thriller, Prisoners, this film is not a “who-dunit.” We know the abductor and his reasoning. The film does not focus on the plot, rather it is the characters’ downward spiralling psyches that intrigue us.

The opening shot is a pan across a Canadian landscape which establishes the snowy cold atmosphere for this slow-burning meditation on the profound and long-lasting effects of a child abduction on all the parties directly involved. The director uses long takes with wide compositions that sometimes break the traditional headroom rule to highlight the surroundings more than the characters.

Like the gimmicky 4D films at Disneyland, I could feel the sweeping cold giving me goose bumps; the chilling hand of the snowstorm on the screen extended across the two dimensional borders and gripped me without letting go.

The aesthetic becomes more than a theoretical intention; it is immersive and haunting in ways that make us forget that a man is behind the camera like a ventriloquist behind his puppet. The best movies are the ones where we forget we are watching something fabricated and contrived.

At times, I saw the ventriloquist’s lips move as Egoyan uses preposterous contrivances to converge various strands in the movie. For instance, the abductor is able to set up surveillance cameras in places that he would not have been able to access. That father, whose heart ached to see his daughter, and the wife, whose defense mechanism was to blame him, become insincere as the concluding cathartic moments bring everything together in an absurd manner without careful contemplation.

Just as when a ventriloquist moves his lips, the illusion was lost, so my goose bumps slowly receded. In the end Egoyan has made a movie, not a magical believable world. Seeing this mannequin walk and talk independently, now that would have been miraculous.