With the 1936 film Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin introduced a witty, scathing take on the effects of mass technology, and, indeed, the type of life we forge with it has become a central preoccupation to our modern world. Film remains at the forefront of this conversation, not only for the speed and power of its own innovations, but also for its ability to provoke us to think. Plenty of films explore tech, but especially since the digital revolution, the theme of media enhanced surveillance often crops up. We decided to take a look a few recent films with their own distinctive take on tech and what it means these days to be watching and interacting with each other.
Earlier I reviewed Zach Donahue’s The Den. It delivers a twist on found footage films like Paranormal Activity by substituting a laptop screen for the cinema screen. This time I’ve picked Canadian film director Atom Egoyan’s The Captive (2014).
I believe we always know the truth of a situation, but the question is what we can accept about it. Atom Egoyan is one director who understands repressed knowledge only too well. In a NUVO interview he explained that his obsession with sexuality comes from his teens, when he was in love with a girl who was sexually abused by her father. He couldn’t do anything about it and found himself living a double life.
Perhaps Egoyan’s trauma gives him a singular talent for drawing us into the eerie flows of awareness, denial and displacement that move between his characters. He is famous for films, such as The Adjuster (1991), Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997), that explore what it means to connect and know in odd, disturbing ways. Most of his characters use video, screens and photos as a way to relate in the face of some kind of emptiness. They also use sex.
Egoyan returned to the themes of these earlier films with The Captive. He disappeared for a while, smothered by the American media industry after strolling the Oscar’s red carpet with The Sweet Hereafter in 1998. Then, with The Devil’s Knot (2013) he presumed to take on the all-American tragedy of the West Memphis Three and treat it as Kafkaesque. I mean, who would dare treat the unresolved murder of three boys with ambiguity and think to get away with it? Only a Canadian film director, you say?
US critics, already frustrated that Egoyan doesn’t make films the way they expect, likely were in no mood for a film of his to appear at Cannes shortly after the release of Devil’s Knot. And surely, his satirical take on the police procedural and action thriller didn’t play well among them. They booed his premiere and trashed The Captive in their reviews. Meanwhile, as a comment on the mannered seediness of Canada’s Golden Horseshoe, the film remains invisible.
Egoyan uses his material control over film to make the audience aware that they are sitting in front of a world reflected on a screen. He distances the audience in many ways, but often, he develops his stories like an open-ended jigsaw puzzle and forces the audience to think a lot about what is going on. True to form The Captive builds in fragments that jump across time and space. It’s also deceptively silent and empty, and a bit clunky, like a gentle version of TV’s the Twilight Zone. This is all intentional. Egoyan has always questioned how mediated environments, networks, genre and the spaces in between affect us. The Captive is a great and subtle maturing of those themes.
The Captive is about a 9-year-old girl, Cassandra (Peyton Kennedy),who is abducted by Mika (Kevin Durand), a pedophile. Cass’s father Matt (Ryan Reynolds) leaves her in the back of his truck while he goes into a roadside diner to buy pie for dinner. In those few moments Cass disappears. Her case is investigated by Nicole Dunloft (Rosario Dawson), head of the local internet sex crime unit, and a detective, Jeff Cornwell (Scott Speedman). For 8 years they turn up nothing, but Jeff mercilessly pursues Matt for the crime. As emotional paralysis sets in, Tina (Mireille Enos), Cass’s mother, becomes trapped in feelings of blame for Matt and the two split. Finally Jeff spots images of an older Cass (Alexia Fast) in a chat room and he discovers that she is helping lure kids into a pedophile ring (of which Mika is a part).
Essentially, this is where the story of The Captive begins. Over time Cass has learned to manipulate Mika’s bizarre impulse for fantasy and has convinced him to set up a surveillance system in the rooms Tina cleans at a hotel in Niagara. From there, Cass is able to lead Mika in a dangerous game where distinctive objects from her past get dropped in the hotel rooms. Tina finds the objects and becomes suspicious. She contacts Nicole, who discovers surveillance cameras hidden in the rooms. Tina, Nicole and Jeff realize that Cass’s abductors are very close, but begin to suspect, once again, that Matt is connected to the crime.
Meanwhile, Cass has convinced Mika to allow her to meet Matt. She leaves Matt with a message about a pairs’ skating trophy she won as a child, and then has members of the pedophile ring search for the trophy that belongs to her skating partner. Their search brings them into contact with Matt and leads to Cass’s escape.
Egoyan gives Cass agency in ways that disturb expectations for clear-cut good and evil in a film about child abuse. He also humanizes, and mocks, the sex unit and the pedophile ring through gentle buffoonery. To many, such choices may come across as in bad taste. Except, the cast’s performance gives the audience space to explore discomforting attitudes and emotions that swirl within the topic of sexual abuse. In particular Reynolds (such a good, earthy Canadian guy in this film), Enos and Dawson are raw, nuanced and compelling. As well, Egoyan does not turn abuse into Hollywood spectacle. He focuses on the layers of adjustment that surround the victim’s trauma instead, and does not exploit the viciousness of the wound itself. Still, the wound and its chilling effects are visible in the atmosphere of the film and deep Canadian winter in which it is set.
If you haven’t yet entered Egoyan’s world, The Captive can be a good place to start. It contains plenty of the “Egoyaneque” that made Atom Egoyan one of Canada’s most famous directors, yet is accessible in the way Hollywood indie is. Non-linear narrative has become popular everywhere now (Memento, 21 grams), but the style Egoyan contributed so much to remains exhilarating in his confident hands.