NEW YORK – In his 1997 Austrian feature, Funny Games, and less effectively in his own almost shot-for-shot 2007 Hollywood remake, director Michael Haneke used a chilling home-invasion scenario to explore the implications of screen violence and our responses to it as entertainment. Debuting Spanish director Miguel Angel Vivas sets up a similar wide-awake nightmare situation in Kidnapped, but his focus is less on content than form. The result is a stylishly executed but punishing ultra-realistic thriller that might be classified as family torture porn.
Haneke is deliberately cold and intellectual in his approach, imbuing his companion pieces with a provocative meta-playfulness that made them shocking and also uncomfortably ambiguous. The brutality of Vivas’ debut feature is blunt and unrelenting, though his ability to sustain and manipulate suspense as the story unfolds in real time is highly assured.
Vivas’ central conceit is a technical one that borrows from Hitchcock’s Rope, telling his story in a dozen continuous shots, keeping cuts to a minimum. That means there’s no looking away as things get ugly for the well-heeled family in peril. But while the film impresses with its narrative economy, and its compelling use of snaking camera movement, the story (written by the director with an assist from Javier Garcia) is too psychologically threadbare to dispel the notion that this is a bravura genre-geek stunt.
The movie opens with an unsettling sequence in which a battered and bloody man staggers onto a road, his hands bound and head tied in a plastic bag. A passing motorist assists him, but a panicked call to the victim’s house to alert his family reveals that the intruders are already inside.
That episode turns out to be unconnected to the plot, but lets us know what’s in store for the main characters, a family moving into their dream house in an upper middle class Madrid gated community. While Jaime (Fernando Cayo) and Marta (Ana Wagener) are still arguing about whether to let their rebellious 18-year-old daughter, Isa (Manuela Velles), go to a party rather than celebrate their first night in the new house over dinner, three men wearing ski masks burst in and beat them into submission.
While the chief thug (Dritan Biba) heads out with Jaime to ATMs all over town to collect cash, his cohorts, a volatile Albanian (Martijn Kuiper) and a more rational but jumpy young accomplice (Guillermo Barrientos), stay behind to terrorize mother and daughter. Every kink in their plan – the unexpected arrival of Isa’s boyfriend (Xoel Yanez); an escape attempt; a patrol visit from a security guard (Pepo Suevos) – ratchets up the intensity and violence.
In Hollywood versions of these stories, such as Panic Room, catharsis, rescue and redemption usually figure. But while Vivas teases the audience by having his victims turn the tables on their aggressors with varying success, he has no interest in a consoling conclusion. Nor is he particularly diligent about building characters, so Jaime, Marta and Isa remain standard-issue figures, reduced to blubbering, terrified messes before we get to know them.
This short-changes the very capable actors, though sustained tension and fear are clearly the director’s priorities here, not emotional involvement. While the family members are all sympathetic ordinary folks, we are no more encouraged to care about their fate than we are the torture victims of horror franchises like Saw and Hostel.
There are mild touches of subversive humor, such as one of the intruders snorting coke and eating snacks while watching TV, wedged between the two bound and gagged women on the sofa. But these moments provide scant reward.
Even so, while the film’s accelerating barrage of torture, rape and killing becomes a repugnant orgy, Vivas’ control of the medium remains commanding. Cinematographer Pedro J. Marquez’s sinuous camerawork keeps the action remarkably mobile for a movie with only two principal locations (house and car) and with no edits within each scene. And Vivas’ use of split screen to show simultaneous action — at one point with two scenes converging – is masterful.
All he needs to become a formidable genre director is a script with some complexity.
Production: Vaca Films, in co-production with Blur Producciones, La Fabrique 2, Attic
Screenwriters: Miguel Angel Vivas, Javier Garcia
Producers: Emma Lustres, Borja Pena
Co-producer: Franck Ribiere, Verane Frediani, Mario Fornies, Rafael Endeiza
Director of photography: Pedro J. Marquez
Production designer: Miguel Riesco
Music: Sergio Moure
Costume designer: Montse Sancho
Editor: Jose Manuel Jimenez
No rating: 85 minutes