Matthew (Ryan Reynolds) tries to track down his daughter's abducter eight years after her disappearance.

3.5
Better than its reputation suggests.

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: If you weren't at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, it's too late for you to attend. But I bring up the event because Atom Egoyan's The Captive was in the 18-title Official Competition where, according to a great many of my esteemed colleagues, it had no business being. Why? Apparently, it's one of the most disappointing films ever made by a formerly talented and audacious filmmaker. Or something.

I disagree.

David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter: "In terms of lame movies being given a prestigious Cannes berth, Grace of Monaco suddenly doesn't look so embarrassing."

I disagree.

Justin Chang in Variety: ".... a ludicrous abduction thriller that finds a once-great filmmaker slipping into previously unentered realms of self-parody."

I disagree. (And, for the record, I like and respect both of these guys and admire their prose and critical acumen. It's just that this time I disagree.)

There have been other instances of the Cannes press corps rejecting en masse a Competition entry I not only liked, but enjoyed enough to see twice. In this category of alleged misfires I place Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock and Paolo Sorrentino's This Must Be the Place. I may not see The Captive a second time, but I'm very pleased to have seen it once.

Why's that? Well, Atom Egoyan is a very smart man. This is not to say that Stephen Hawking by virtue of his brain power missed his calling as a film director. But much as Quentin Tarantino can give you at least one – and possibly more than one – good reason why every single thing in any of his movies unfolds as it does, so does Egoyan have a solid reason for every move he makes when telling a story. The result may or may not work for any given viewer, but Egoyan knows what he's doing. And in this case, he's delving into broad genre conventions with straight-faced gusto.

The Captive plays with chronology, toys with emotions, shows goodness hidden in secret locations and evil hiding in plain sight, doles out puzzle pieces in interesting ways and suggests that the NSA may know what you ate for lunch today but the police may not be able to find an abducted youngster no matter how much they want to.

Matthew Lane (Ryan Reynolds) does landscaping and hauls stuff in his truck for a living. His wife Tina (Mireille Enos) cleans hotel rooms. Their adorable 9-year-old daughter Cass (Peyton Kennedy) is a gifted skater, devoted to perfecting her strength and grace on the ice. On the way home from skating practice, in a snowy landscape in Ontario in winter, father and daughter stop at a roadside diner. Dad goes in to get a pie. Cass is in the back seat. When he comes out of the shop just minutes later, his daughter is gone. Something that isn't supposed to happen has definitely happened. ‘Losing’ your only child is a surefire way to complicate your marriage.

Detective Nicole Dunlop (Rosario Dawson) heads the police division that looks for missing children. She radiates no-nonsense fortitude and determination. The newest member of her small, dedicated staff is Jeff Cornwall (Scott Speedman), who doesn't buy Matthew's account of how his daughter was there one minute and gone the next.

These are the working class characters. There are also some slick, disquieting well-to-do characters. Pillar of the community types.  One of them looks as if he should be tying innocent women to the railroad tracks while twirling his moustache in the 1800s. Quite possibly he has perfected the 21st century version of that dastardly scenario.

Cornwall also ends up investigating the disappearance of an adult character. If you're a physician, it only seems fair that you'd be able to save a loved one suffering from an illness, right? And if you're a police detective specialising in missing persons, it seems as if you'd have an edge if somebody close to you vanished, right?  Hmmmm. Maybe not. That’s got to be a drag. Resoundingly creepy clues start showing up to convince Tina that her daughter – who would be well into her teens by now – is still alive somewhere.

Some reviewers posit that eight years into her captivity, the missing daughter has a case of Stockholm syndrome. I interpret her actions differently. I think her situation has forced her to learn patience and ingenuity, which she deploys within the strict parameters of being held hostage.

For Cass' abductor may once have gotten his jollies in the manner we imagine paedophiles usually do, but he now seems to get a sexual charge out of, well, narrative. Cass has to provide stories, the more personal the better. This modern riff on Scheherazade and One Thousand and One Nights also points to what we expect – indeed, demand – from the movies: Tell me a story and it had better be good!

Some commentators contend that the film is cobbled together from one far-fetched element after another. Well, folks, it's a movie. When once-young lovers who met during the D-Day landings are reunited 70 years later, we rejoice in how odd and wonderful life can be. But when a film script has the temerity to explore how a paedophile or two might go about satisfying his abhorrent urges while eluding capture, we take umbrage and mutter about inauthenticity. Just as real life keeps providing nightmare episodes in which an angry young person opens fire on classmates and unfortunate bystanders, real life, alas, has given us multiple examples of youngsters held against their will for unthinkable periods of time only to finally escape. (Natascha Kampusch in Austria and Elisabeth Fritzl before her – a true tale so twisted it would be hard to invent – come to mind.) Egoyan and co-screenwriter David Fraser meld sophisticated surveillance equipment with the possibilities of a secret code that only certain protagonists could ever hope to crack.

Some commentators have written that such a serious role is a departure for Reynolds. I don't know about that – his tour de force performance in Buried was as serious as a heart attack in my book.

Egoyan's early films were so startlingly original and prescient that he hasn't always been able to top them. He showed a dazzling early grasp of how personal video devices might affect human interactions. Like the Iron Horse and electric light at earlier junctures in our history, compact recording gizmos, computers and miniaturised electronics of every stripe have altered daily life in ways both subtle and not. Think about it: Not that long ago, the only way to read this review would have been to obtain a copy of it published on paper in a periodical. Now you can be anywhere with an internet connection and my words on The Captive are available to you. But if somebody kidnapped me while you were reading it, would I be any easier to locate and rescue? Not that long ago, if you wanted to make a public comment about what I've written, you'd have needed a sheet of paper, an envelope, a stamp and some patience. You'd send a letter to the editor and maybe it would see print. Now, that aforementioned internet connection permits you to weigh in pretty much immediately. But if the comment you post is the last thing you write before being taken hostage, will it be any easier to locate and rescue you?

We take for granted what would have seemed like magic to previous generations. Many of us have also abdicated much of our privacy because that's the way things seem to be going in social media land. Egoyan intuited, back in the 1980s, that human emotions and personal tragedies were about to become susceptible to new outside forces made possible by new technologies. A hologram on a tombstone once seemed the height of futuristic grieving and memorialising. Now there are services that send a digital time capsule out to a pre-arranged mailing list in the event of your death. You may have shuffled off your mortal coil but your Facebook page lives on.

Those who find The Captive subpar gripe that the director is revisiting familiar themes but in pale ways. How 'bout if we think about a filmmaker with an auteurist bent the same way we think about legendary folk singers and rock gods? If you go to a Leonard Cohen concert and he doesn't sing ‘Suzanne’, you may feel cheated. If you go to a Rolling Stones concert and Mick Jagger doesn't strut around with feline grace while puckering his trademark lips, you may wonder why you bothered getting a ticket. Egoyan has more than earned the right to continue examining ground he has already covered. I happen to think he has found a few new wrinkles.

Egoyan shows us that, surfaces to the contrary, Canada is a scary place. And he plants – and waters – the idea that somebody may be watching you right now with ill intent. Why? Because they can. In case of emergency, stock up on food and water and batteries. And – in order to keep yourself or a captor entertained – it wouldn't hurt to have a solid supply of stories stockpiled in your head.

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Details

1 hour 52 min
In Cinemas 13 November 2014,

Genres