Atom Egoyan's recent movie THE CAPTIVE makes him feel even more like himself. It got shredded and mocked by the critics last year during its premiere at Cannes, yet, for me, the film is in its own way a throwback to Egoyan's triumphant run of the Nineties, where movies like THE ADJUSTER and EXOTICA illustrated what an unusual sensibility he can bring to the Canadian screen. Of his past decade-and-a-half of movies, the only ones I haven't seen are ARATAT or ADORATION, but I'm probably pretty safe in saying that, with THE CAPTIVE, snooty-Cannes-critics aside, he seems more in tune with his own peculiar obsessions than we've seen in some time.
There is nothing particularly original about a story involving the disappearance or death of a child -- indeed, this is the third time that Egoyan's dealt with this topic, after THE SWEET HEREAFTER and last year's DEVIL'S KNOT -- but there's a brew going on here that feels suitably off-kilter and tart, a nicely aesthetic confusion for one's touchy palate. Somebody should, if they haven't already, write a Master' thesis about 'detachment' and 'abstraction' in the films of Egoyan (and his Canadian-cinema older brother, David Cronenberg), because there's a distancing to his stuff that, when it works, only adds to the notions of unsettlement that he's continually trying to provoke.
In brief, this movie is a domestic drama, overlapped with a police procedural, then seasoned with whatever the fuck Egoyan's always going on about regarding our voyeuristic impulses -- a favourite obsession of his, one whose inclusion here feels odd and distracting, yet hey, that's the pont. (I think.) Like in Cronenberg's films, there's an abiding weirdness at work that you can never quite figure out. The acting and pacing sometimes seems off, but you can't put your finger on why; the dialogue, as spoken, is either stilted or spot-on; the story either too vague, or perpetually right on the button. Egoyan's either always not trying enough, or simply too hard, and often both efforts emerge at the same time. It's hard to make sense of what he wants us to think.
As it should be. This is the proper combination for him, this uncertain mixture of tones. It makes it impossible to discern if the movie is exactly working, per se, but more and more as I age I don't want a movie to work -- I want it to breathe. Sometimes those gasps of breath might be muted, even suffocated, and at other times they might emerge as a rough sort of bark, but it's that uneasy exhaltation of air that his films at their best bring that makes me sit up straight.
There's much to admire in some of his more 'mainstream' films, but I like Egoyan best when you're never quite sure if he knows just what the hell he's up to. You can almost feel him trying stuff out, artistically, searching for the proper tone, sometimes even in the same scene. There's a moment three-quarters of the way through THE CAPTIVE that seems like it would be a definite game-changer, narratively-speaking, in terms of where the plot has to go -- but nothing comes of it. Never mentioned again. I don't know if a subsequent scene was left out of the final edit, or if Egoyan never intended to follow-up on those implications. Its omission was a real head-scratcher for me, but then I just thought: "Well, it's Egoyan -- he's funny that way."
I wasn't sure what I'd just seen, or why it was there in the first place, but on a deeper filmic and philosophical level, his films have always been obsessed with the nature of observation itself. Why do we watch what we do? What do we get out of it? What happens when we're not watching?
This film is filled with people looking at screens, or through windows or windshields, watching cars coming or going, or else they're simply studying each other, trying to suss out intentions, The cumulative effect kind of got to me near the end, and I had a curious sensation I haven't had in some time while watching a film; I started to get uncomfortable with me as a viewer (and person?) watching them do all this watching. I don't know if Egoyan had this effect in mind, but he sure put in mine.
Another aspect of the film that I loved (which is admittedly personal), was that it was great to see Canada play itself, to see Niagara Falls and Ontario feature so prominently as a character, the winter weather a part of the narrative turf of the story. Rarely do Canadians get to see their own stuff on the screen, and to see this familiar terrain of my youth paired with Egoyan's own creepy aesthetic provided a welcome frission that augmented its creep. Add in a crew of prominent Canadain actors -- Ryan Reynolds, Scott Speedman, and Egoyan stalwart Bruce Greenwood -- and the movie itself felt more 'Canadian' as a result.
Is there truly anything 'Canadian' about THE CAPTIVE? I would say yes, in that its entry-point into an ostensibly 'thriller' narrative is subdued in comparison to what a mainstream American approach would look like. Egoyan gives us perpetually-jovial Ryan Reyolds, but saps him of all the pretty-boy charm and flippant jokes that he's made his whole career out of; he upends any suspense by interjecting scenes designed soley to set up moods of discontent -- in the characters, and probably the viewers, too. There are gobs of emotion scattered throughout the movie, but everybody's trying to suppress, to not reveal their own passions, and for mild-mannered Canucks, what's more Canadian than that?
Again, I don't know if the film 'works, and I can sort of get why nobody at Cannes gave it much of a go, it being at times subdued and lurid, over-the-top and plain dull, an amalgamation of pseudo-European arthouse ambitions with genre-picture suspense, but Egoyan's films have always included, at their core, a dispassionate and clinical vibe that seems to examine humans with a reserved mode of detachment, and it's this emotional disconnect that's often going on that paradoxically drew me in here. (This film is about how we end up watching each other, and why, for what means, and because no character truly allows anybody else in, why should I as the viewer receive a free pass? ) Even when the characters are full of quiet rage and despair, we're somehow not emotionally allowed to truly synch up with their pain, as if as a director Egoyan's always saying 'just wait'.
THE CAPTIVE awkwardly, yet doggedly, builds on the previous themes of Egoyan, and to what end I'm not sure, but the very last shot of the film ended up moving me just a bit,,unexpectedly so, and I wondered why, exactly, and if it was even supposed to be meant as sentimental, or was I just reading it wrong. As the screen cut to black, leaving me with those lingering questions, I eventually mentally shrugged, thinking: "Hey, it's Egoyan." It was good to think that thought, and mean it. It's been awhile.