‘Cleveland Abduction’: TV Review

An appalling true-life kidnapping becomes a middling TV movie.

The Ariel Castro abduction case gets the full Lifetime treatment. That's not a good thing.

There’s nothing palatable about the horrors that now-deceased kidnapper Ariel Castro inflicted on the three young women — Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus — he held prisoner in his Cleveland home between 2002 and 2013. It’s a sordid story of beatings, rapes, psychological terror, forced miscarriages and other details that chill the blood. That doesn’t stop the Lifetime network from trying to wring some facile triumph-of-the-spirit pathos out of the affair in its unpleasant and unnecessary television movie adapted from Knight’s 2014 memoir, Finding Me: A Decade of Darkness, a Life Reclaimed. (Berry and DeJesus recently have published their own account of the ordeal in a book entitled Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland.)

Cleveland Abduction is primarily Knight’s story: She’s played by Orange Is the New Black star Taryn Manning with pasty makeup, Coke-bottle glasses and a harsh regional accent. Knight is nearly at her wit’s end when we first meet her, unable to find a steady job and raising a young son in the company of her negligent mother. After her boy is taken away by social services, Knight is more determined than ever to straighten her life out. But on the way to her final custody hearing, she gets lost and accepts a fateful ride from casual acquaintance Castro (Raymond Cruz). He promises he’ll get her to the courthouse on time, but first he wants to swing by his house and sell her a puppy that she can give to her son.

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No sooner has she entered Castro’s decrepit abode than he knocks her to the ground and ties her up — the first of many horrific indignities to come over the next decade and change. There is a tension in these early scenes by virtue of the actors’ commitment to their roles and the claustrophobic setting that director Alex Kalymnios utilizes for maximum oppressiveness. It’s difficult not to feel for a woman hog-tied and left alone in a padlocked attic, forced to soil her clothes and satisfy the sexual desires of her torturer. Basic cable only allows for so much explicitness, so nudity is nonexistent and the rape scenes hardly convey the full ghastliness of Knight’s situation. On the other end of the spectrum, we do get to see almost every gruesome detail of the first of Knight’s five forced miscarriages, as Castro beats her slightly swelling belly with a dumbbell until she bleeds out. And … commercial!

There’s something tremendously off-putting about reducing Knight’s yearslong ordeal to an hour-and-a-half series of extreme highs and lows. Knight marks the passage of time by putting handmade numbers on the wall on her son’s birthday (she starts at "4" and ends in the lower teens) a too-sentimental ploy, however much based in fact, that tugs shamelessly at the heartstrings. When Berry (Samantha Droke) and DeJesus (Katie Sarife) arrive, the trio become de facto martyrs, cutting their hair short so that they each resemble Joan of Arc and dancing defiantly to pop music in between Castro’s numerous assaults. Cruz is unsurprisingly excellent at playing a monster (as anyone who’s seen his Tuco on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul can attest), though aside from a few halfhearted attempts to humanize his heinous character, it never feels like the actor is doing more than servicing tabloid fodder.

View more: Cleveland Kidnapping Victim Michelle Knight Says 'Every Day I Feel So Much Freer' (Video)

True empathy finally comes in the form of Joe Morton, playing the government agent assigned to Knight after she escapes Castro’s clutches, as well as the always-welcome Pam Grier in a nearly dialogue-free role as a nurse who acts as a sounding board for our damaged heroine as she adjusts to life back in the real world. Thanks to their efforts, this toothless and tedious horror show briefly takes on a potently tragic dimension, though the film quickly reverts to saccharine, empowering uplift for a finale that dulls every one of this gruesome story’s jagged edges.

Twitter: @keithuhlich