Cannes 2014: Atom Egoyan’s ‘The Captive’ performs a self-abduction

Atom Egoyan is a filmmaker who can seem in perfect control of every frame. And yet, as anyone who’s seen the last 15 minutes of “Chloe” knows, sometimes the story seems all too in control of him.

The Canadian director, who’s always interesting, if hardly always good or consistent, brought his flair for melodrama and dance-on-the-line-of-the-implausible to “The Captive,” a movie that had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on Friday and will be released later this year by A24.

Egoyan is preoccupied with certain motifs: technology-enhanced surveillance, illicit relationships with minors, the (sometimes related) death or disappearance of children and the parental guilt that comes in its aftermath, chilly landscapes to match that human form of isolation. Nearly all of those (minus the surveillance) are found in his beloved “The Sweet Hereafter” from 1997, and are also found here. Which is not to say they are at all the same movie, or will generate the same response.

Set in the snowy precincts of southern Ontario, “The Captive” concerns the disappearance of a young girl and the people who try to fight and compensate for her loss over the eight or so years that follow.

In Egoyan-ish fashion, “Captive” jumps around in time, often giving the viewer information outcomes and information the characters don’t have but retaining an air of mystery by not explaining right away why that information or those outcomes are relevant.


As things click into place, it becomes clear that Matt (Ryan Reynolds) and his wife Tina (Mireille Enos) are mourning the disappearance of their cheerful 9-year-old daughter Cassandra, left alone in a truck by Matt as he stopped in at a diner. Though Tina’s character at times blames Matt and soon separates from him, the couple is united in their grief, completely in the dark about what’s happened.

We, however, are not, as we soon see Cassandra’s abductor (Kevin Durand), a creepily mustachioed man with a taste for opera who would never be suspected of actually being a pedophile because he looks so much like a central-casting version of a pedophile. The case is investigated, somewhat, by two police officers (Rosario Dawson and Scott Speedman) who as the chronology unfolds develop their own relationships with each other and the mourning couple.

Though it’s unlikely Egoyan intended it, the film has echoes of the Ariel Castro case, not to mention the more recent Nigeria schoolgirl abductions, which gives it all a rather uncomfortably timely spin -- uncomfortable since, unlike those real-life dramas, this plays out more as a TV procedural, complete with coincidences and contrivances. (It’s one of those movies where you say to yourself, “surely there have to be more than the same six people in this town.”)

It also will call to mind “Prisoners,” the second time recently Egoyan had the misfortune of making a movie with a topic similar to a movie that’s already been made (West Memphis Three tale “The Devil’s Knot” was the other).

And while “Captive” hints at emotions and mysteries with a delightful subtlety for a while, some of the dangers soon start to become more literal, especially with the emergence of an apparent pedophile ring and some wild plots and conspiracies that wouldn’t be out of place in the most fantastical spy novel. Tidy endings to some of those plots twists further take away the movie from the contemplative to something more melodramatic and unreal.

Those last bits seemed to be what tipped the screening toward boos at the end; this is one of those films that could elicit different adjectives as you watch it; ask viewers an hour in and those boos might have been cheers. Twitter reactions were harsh too, harsher than even the usually divisive Egoyan film. (Words like “claptrap” were used, and they were the polite ones.)

Egoyan played it straight to reporters afterward, not addressing the movie’s potential to polarize and simply describing his inspiration as coming from his hometown in Western Canada where the disappearance of a child has had a similar effect on the parents as it does in the film. And though it’s the cartoonish elaboration of the pedophile ring, and the cover-ups associated with it, that poses the most trouble, Egoyan defended the choice.

“It’s an imaginary cult that’s not that hard to imagine,” he said. “It just seems so extreme and yet so natural.” So using some fictional license, he said, he decided to “take it one step further.”

The dramatic roles offer a career rehab of sorts for Reynolds and Speedman, the former of whom, though he declined to answer a question about the contrast between doing a Cannes film and “The Green Lantern,” did seem to signal a discontentment with the studio world (which, let’s face it, has been discontented with him too after some recent disappointments).

“It came along at a perfect time for me,” the Canada-born actor said of the role. “When you work on a large film that’s not going as you hope it would it can be a pretty rough scenario to be around,” he added. “Nothing about this film involved dragging the audience down toward the bottom line by their wallet.”

There are all sorts of other off-screen storylines here too: Enos, for instance, looking for a toehold in movies after her Emmy-nominated turn on “The Killing” (again trying to solve a murder, again a troubled parent), not to mention Egoyan himself. His most acclaimed work — “Exotica,” “Hereafter” -- is more than a decade behind him. He’s still managing to come up with interesting ideas, even if he can’t always manage a way out of them.