‘Captive’: Film Review

Captive Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Possibly the first faith-based noir.

Ten years after an escaped prisoner held an Atlanta woman hostage, David Oyelowo and Kate Mara topline a feature based on the incident.

A redemption story that’s admirably devoid of sentimentality, Captive traces the life-changing hours that connected an escaped prisoner and the troubled waitress he held hostage. Based on hostage Ashley Smith’s book about the 2005 incident — a recounting of harrowing events in which Rick Warren’s bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life proves pivotal — the movie is, above all, a no-nonsense portrait of two damaged but resilient souls. Though much of the drama is clunky and flat, the taut, visceral performances by David Oyelowo and Kate Mara never err.

Going out at the low end of the wide-release range, or about 800 screens, the film will entice fans of Smith and Warren’s books, but could also draw audiences curious to see Selma star Oyelowo in a change-of-pace thriller.

Notwithstanding the feature’s glaring inspirational theme (and a reinforcing Oprah moment over the end credits), the ultimately therapeutic collision of Ashley Smith and Brian Nichols unfolds with a lean, noirish trajectory that tends toward the existential rather than the evangelical.

The screenplay by Brian Bird, whose specialty is uplifting fare, emphasizes character over message as it sets parallel narratives in motion: Nichols’ brutal, murderous break from Atlanta’s Fulton County Jail and widowed young mother Smith’s struggles to beat her addiction to meth. Bird puts obvious, expositional lines in the mouths of his characters, especially the secondary ones. But the early sequences focusing separately on Nichols and Smith have almost no dialogue, and are all the more powerful for it.

Facing 25 years for rape, Nichols makes his move against a guard in a scene that crackles with tension thanks to the contained menace in Oyelowo’s every move and Jerry Jameson’s controlled direction. Armed and moving with devastating speed through the courthouse and out into the city, Nichols has left four dead and one grievously injured by the time he crosses paths with Smith, outside the suburban apartment she has just moved into.

In character-defining scenes before that fateful instant, Mara embodies Smith’s swings between the tender sunniness of mom-and-daughter playtime and the dark grip of drugs. Though Smith is determined to regain custody of her girl from her concerned aunt (Mimi Rogers), and the new apartment is a key step on her road to recovery, her sobriety remains tentative.

At the 12-step meeting where she’s an ambivalent participant, she responds to the offer of a used copy of The Purpose-Driven Life by chucking it in the trash, only to have the book show up again, like a talisman. It will, eventually, fill the space between her and her captor in the hours they pass in her apartment. Nichols, who urges her to read it aloud to him, dismisses it as “a bunch of church crap” before a transformative awakening that the movie doesn’t directly depict but which Oyelowo makes fully felt. Mara, too, makes Smith’s epiphany, the moment in which she truly faces her addiction, utterly persuasive.

Elsewhere, the film is less convincing. The manhunt led by two detectives (Michael K. Williams and Leonor Varela) transpires as an unimaginative procedural, burdened with drab visuals and dialogue that ranges from the explanatory to the pointless. In the latter category there's a call to police HQ from Nichols’ mother and a wisp of a plot element involving a TV reporter played by Jessica Oyelowo, the lead actor’s wife.

But Jameson, a veteran of episodic TV and features including Airport ’77, makes effective use of the small screen as a narrative device. Snippets of the evolving crime story as told by CNN, complete with theorizing talking heads, heighten the central pair’s isolation and the terror of Smith’s situation.

Whether the two characters are negotiating the space of her small apartment or venturing out into the night to dispose of a stolen vehicle, the director’s straightforward style lets their self-understanding and mutual recognition build. But there’s no forced sense of communion, even as Smith’s ordeal gives way to a next-morning scene of surreal domesticity. Cinematographer Luis Sansans handheld work has an organic muscularity that never calls attention to itself.

Oyelowo, who’s also one of the picture’s producers, proves yet again that he’s among the most versatile actors working in film. He’s played desperate, destructive characters before, notably in the single-character Nightingale, but here taps into a very different form of unhinged. With his formidable physicality and seething emotional depth, he makes Nichols’ pain and rage apparent without playing to audience sympathy — except in a bathetic 11th-hour phone message to his newborn son, purportedly the driving force behind Nichols’ escape.

Mara, stringy-haired and pale, takes on a role unlike any she’s yet played. She reveals not just the toughness and intuitive smarts beneath Smith’s weakened exterior but a woman who’s shaken to the core and stronger for it.

The movie suggests rather than argues that the outcome of the encounter constitutes a religious miracle. If anything, the dramatic action downplays, or inadvertently muddles, the role of Warren’s spiritual guidebook during those hours. But whether intentional or not, that inconclusiveness is what resonates. Mara and Oyelowo have created characters with agency, and therein lies their guilt and their grace.

Production companies: BN Films, Brightside Entertainment, 1019 Entertainment, Yoruba Saxon, Itaca Films
Cast: David Oyelowo, Kate Mara, Mimi Rogers, Michael K. Williams, Leonor Varela, Jessica Oyelowo
Director: Jerry Jameson
Screenwriter: Brian Bird
Based on the book Unlikely Angel by Ashley Smith with Stacy Mattingly
Producers: Terry Botwick, Jerry Jameson, Lucas Akoskin, Alex Garcia, Katerina Wolfe, David Oyelowo, Ken Wales
Executive producers: Santiago Garcia Galvan, Jonathan Gray, Brian Bird, Elliot Lester, Ralph Winter
Director of photography: Luis Sansans
Production designer: Sandra Cabriada
Costume designer: Cameron Doyle
Editor: Melissa Kent
Composer: Lorne Balfe
Casting directors: Mark Fincannon, Dana Salerno

Rated PG-13, 97 minutes