Monday, June 18, 2007

Review - Captivity

Poor Elisha Cuthbert, she seems destined to spend her career in a state of impending danger. After making her name as 24's bad luck magnet Kim Bauer, Cuthbert's latest attempt to stake a claim for big screen stardom sees her in a predicament which tops any of the close shaves she experienced on that TV show. In Captivity Cuthbert stars as Jennifer Tree, a model/actress/party girl whose face is plastered on every billboard, television and magazine cover in New York. But is she happy? Of course not. Jennifer bemoans her lonely lot to her pet dog ("you're the only one who loves me"), and when she arranges to meet her boyfriend at a swanky party he stands her up with a text message at the last minute. Jennifer's glamorous life is really a hollow and lonely one, but things are about to get significantly worse.

At the aforementioned party Jennifer's drink is spiked by an unknown stranger, and after she stumbles out of the bathroom she is grabbed and whisked away from the scene without anyone seemingly batting an eyelid. When she wakes up, the model finds herself in an elaborately-designed torture chamber with no means of escape and cameras watching her every move. Every now and then Jennifer's sadistic captor subjects her to some sort of despicable torment - threatening her face with acid, burying her in sand, forcing her to drink an offal smoothie, that sort of thing - and her only ally in this situation is a fellow prisoner: Gary (Daniel Gillies), who is similarly trapped in an adjoining cell.

I can guess what you're thinking at this point - you're probably thinking that you've seen this movie plenty of times before. And yes, if you've seen any of the Saw movies or Hostel then there's absolutely nothing in this witless picture to intrigue, excite or terrify in the expected manner. The rise of the 'torture porn' film over the past few years has been one of the most dispiriting trends in recent American cinema; films whose sole raison d’être is the desire to punish the audience with a series of sadistic acts, pushing the boundaries of violence and explicitness in a nihilistic and dehumanising fashion. The importance of story and character takes a back seat to spectacle in these films; they're as close as one can get to watching a snuff film without the acts themselves actually taking that final step.

And yet, I somehow expected more from Captivity. I'm not sure why I thought this film would be a step up from the recent batch of horrors; perhaps it was the fact that the likeable Cuthbert had chosen this as her first attempt to carry a movie on her own shoulders. Or perhaps it was the unlikely marriage of B-movie veteran Larry Cohen, who wrote the screenplay, and Oscar-nominated director Roland Joffé, who is making his first film in seven years here. Joffé is best known for such prestige pictures as The Killing Fields, The Mission and… er… Super Mario Brothers, so surely it's fair to assume there must be a good reason that the director is choosing this material to mark his return to Hollywood?

Whatever that reason is, I can't see it. The problems begin with Larry Cohen's trashy, straight-to-video screenplay and never really end. One might hope that Joffé would have a fresh angle on this well-trodden ground; but from the grisly prologue, through the dingy Se7en-esque opening credits, to the predictable staging of the torture scenes, the director seems to be going through all of the familiar motions. The direction is also surprisingly slack, failing to generate the requisite tension or suspense in even the most extreme of its scenarios, with the film's signature 'sandpit' sequence proving to be a complete dud, entirely lacking in any sense of claustrophobia. This curious lack of impact is partly down to the way Cuthbert's character reacts to the violence; we never get a sense of the effect these cumulative horrors are having on the central figure, who changes her clothes every five minutes and whose hair and makeup remains glossy into the fourth day of her ordeal (must be that special model training). The tortures follow a repetitive pattern: Jennifer passes out after each one - either through drugs or fear - and when she regains consciousness it's almost as if she's simply waking up after a night's sleep, ready for the next torment. Captivity is often very gory and unpleasant, but it never cuts deep enough to be genuinely scary.

To be fair to Cuthbert, she gives the film plenty of effort and it isn't the actress' fault that her wafer-thin role has been so poorly developed and has been so badly handled by the filmmakers. Jennifer is never more than a lonely rich girl and the rapid escalation of her romance with fellow captive Gary is ridiculous, leading to one of the most laughably inappropriate sex scenes you'll ever see. Cuthbert has shown herself to be an appealing, capable actress in 24 and The Girl Next Door, and despite struggling visibly with such an ill-conceived character she still manages to be the most accomplished performer here by some distance. Gillies is just awful, delivering an overwrought and wooden performance, and Pruitt Taylor Vince - usually a reliable weirdo - obviously felt it was sufficient to just turn up in a dressing gown.

But even high-class performances couldn't have saved this dire film. Nothing in the picture makes sense, and as the increasingly ridiculous twists began colliding with one another in the film's calamitous final third the sound of derisive laughter started to swamp the cinema in which I watched this tawdry spectacle play out. Defenders of Captivity will claim that the film is all about female empowerment - seemingly on the basis that Jennifer gets to kick her assailant in the balls and shoot him, yes, in the balls - but that's a bullshit defence for a film which has little redeeming value. Captivity is a film which simply strings together a series of sick stunts in a cheap and slapdash way, without ever attempting to provide us with a sense of character, depth or cohesion. Is this what horror films have become? Has our expectation of what a film experience should be sunk so low that garbage like this will suffice? Captivity cares nothing for humanity and only displays contempt for its audience, let's allow it to die a mercifully quick death.