Jaime (Fernando Cayo), Marta (Ana Wagener) and their daughter Isabel (Manuela Vellés), a well-off family, move to a luxurious new house. The parents are going through a rough patch but have decided to give their relationship one last chance. On the first evening in their new home a group of three hooded men burst into the house. Their objective: to get as much money as possible out of them in one night.
Spanish filmmakers have held unusual sway over genre films this century, extending from Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others through to the effective recent debut of Guillem Morales with Julia’s Eyes. They’ve worked a sharp, if sometimes camouflaged, grasp of storytelling into technical brio to reinvigorate ghostly hauntings, suspenseful thrillers and nightmarish revelations. With Kidnapped, another comparatively unknown director in Miguel Angel Vivas stakes his own claim – the film is bloody and taut, and the newcomer’s technique is apparent, if partly because the destructive tendencies of the tightly contained narrative offer little psychological insight or contemplative distance.
The movie – which begins with the sound of twittering birds that continue as the camera calmly reveals a bloody, quivering body on the grass with a plastic bag on the person’s head that make for desperate sucking sounds as they gasp for breath – is a horror film hiding inside a crime thriller. The home invasion that drives the plot unfolds within our understanding of law and order dynamics, but the further it progresses the more punishing the deviations become; it begins as Desperate Hours and ends as The Last House on the Left.
Sketched with cruelly mundane strokes – if you initially appreciate the characters so little, the movie asks, what happens when they’re harmed in front of you? – the well-off Spanish family of Jaime (Fernando Cayo), his wife Marta (Ana Wagener) and their teenage daughter (Manuela Velles) are undertaking their first night in a new home when three masked men burst in and brutally subjugate them. Vivas shoots in long takes, the camera hovering ominously close to bodies not prepared for violent outcomes, and he wants the audience to slowly realise that he’s not about to cut away when events become uncomfortable.
That might suggest Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (either one), but moral commentary isn’t valued here as much as an appreciation of why exploitation films can be so divisive. Vivas frames unsettling contrasts: inspecting a happy family photo as the same three people scream for mercy in the background. The three criminals stick to familiar outlines – the leader (Dirtan Biba) is cruelly calm, his offsider (Martijn Kuiper) is a violent sociopath, and their apprentice (Guillermo Barrientos) is both guilty and jumpy – but uses split screen sequences to show that the usual professionalism can’t prevent matters going haywire. With essentially the family home and their ATM-bound car as locations, the tension when the stakes are ratcheted up by the likes of an unexpected arrival at the property is expressed in terms of how bad the outcome will be, not whether something bad will happen.
Notions of bravery and responsibility are briefly explored, but Kidnapped is more interested in finding the point where the victims snap and defend themselves by matching their aggressor’s callous disregard. The suggestive threats of mainstream thrillers, such as the masked figure suggestively pawing a teenage girl, are carried through here, and the final scenes become steadily more graphic. The only participant who remains in control is Vivas, who documents the fallout with reductive relish, refusing to offer the easy out of survivor’s satisfaction to offset so many harsh notes. The truly scary thing would be to see what he could do with a script that genuinely mattered.