A lot can be forgiven of a film that offers itself as a philosophical proposition rather than a morality play. While there is a particular trend in popular media since the 90s to use paedophilia as a central theme to sell itself, it is ultimately kind of a cop out. Everyone can unite against a rhetorical device that is just fundamentally evil, without any blurred boundaries. Even those films from the last 20 years that take a “sympathy for the devil” stance, like the Woodsman are underwritten by a series of assertions that are constantly reaffirmed about the total lack of moral ambiguity attached to the sexualization of children. I will cite both Kubrick‘s Lolita and Malle‘s Pretty Baby as notable exemptions; despite the controversy they created, their cinematic value as well as their artful ambiguity afford them a coveted space under the protective umbrella of ‘artworks’ that preclude them from adhering too rigorously to social conventions, not to mention that they were both made in periods where arthouse film was not yet relegated to the margins of cinema culture. Morally speaking, the territory of paedophilia is an immovable object against which any interrogation is both vulgar and futile.
So, as a director, to take on the challenge of addressing the issue ultimately leads to a limited number of outcomes: a protracted witchhunt inevitably resulting either in the victorious persecution of the paedo (Michael, Happiness, Hard Candy); the unjust persecution of an innocent man (Jagten); or the anti-cathartic failure of the hero to confront or disarm him (the Pledge), the latter two often resulting in the ultimate psychological collapse of the witchhunter.
Atom Egoyan‘s new film, the Captive, takes a unique angle on the subject. For all of its flaws – the Captive suffers from awkward writing, a lack of chemistry between characters and a convoluted back-and-forth narrative trajectory that bounces irratically through time in an effort to connect a series of disappearances – the philosophocal position it puts forward is intriguing, and alludes to a lingering evil even darker than paedophilia. The central consideration for the villain, a man of both the financial and technological means to propose the experiment, seems to be “why focus my industry on the flesh of the child alone, which has a short shelf-life when compared to the anguish of the parents he or she was taken from?” The villain, Mika, a reptilian performance by Kevin Durand, using a network of cameras and victims who had outgrown their sexual purpose, documents the lives of the suffering parents who were wrecked by the uncertainty of the fates of their children. Should the anguish abate, he would bait them with signs of their children, who would narrate the videos with sentimental stories about the objects or scenes their parents were presented with, outlining exactly the depth of their suffering for the paying customer. The missing children become prudent instruments in their parents’ ordeal, and complicit in the expansion of the program that enslaves more parents and children to the secret machine fueled by suffering.
For the abstract and unspeakable darkness of the film’s central theme, the overall presentation is dry and often dogged by implausibility in its portrayal of the police. Mireille Enos is suitably unhinged as the mother of the missing Cass, working as a chambermaid in a hotel in Niagara Falls who frequently finds ‘gifts’ in the rooms of the hotel belonging to her daughter. Ryan Reynolds plays Cass’ father, and is pitted in a ridiculous conflict with the investigating detective who is convinced of his guilt, and Rosario Dawson is a dedicated detective whose obsession with the guardianship of young children does not mesh with the scattered fragments of her life we are exposed to.
The film’s greatest strength, however, is as a delivery device for the philosophical prospect of a new and abject realm of criminality that teeters closer to early Cronenberg than to any generic themes surrounding paedophilia: the wholesale trade of human suffering as a commodity that can radiate infinitely outward from a single act of violence.