By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist August 3, 2011 at 10:02AM
The single setting thriller is a tough trick to overcome as a director, as it constrains nearly every aspect of a production making it all the more difficult to elevate the film from its static surroundings. Last year saw a spate of single-setting flicks hit theaters, and while Danny Boyle's "127 Hours" and J Blakeson's underrated "The Disappearance Of Alice Creed" showed what inventive filmmaking and a smart screenplay can do in opening up the narrative in compelling ways, the Ryan Reynolds-led "Buried" was an example of what happens with a director can't get past the basic conceit of the picture. Which brings us to "Kidnapped," the first film in eight years from director Miguel Ángel Vivas and one that came to Montreal riding some decent buzz including Best Horror and Director prizes at last year's Fantastic Fest. We don't get the hype.
To be certain, "Kidnapped" starts off very, very strong. The first image we see of the film is of a man beaten, lying in a field, with a plastic bag over his head. He could be dead, we're not quite sure, but both the camera and the man remain still for several prolonged moments before he starts gasping desperately, struggles to his feet, and because he his hands are bound behind this back, runs blindly into a nearby street and gets hit by a car. He's still alive, but hysterical and as the driver tries to help him, the man begs him to call his house. When he gets through he warns his daughter not to let anyone in the house when she replies that not only have "they" already arrived, "They shot Mom." Cue title card.
It's a breathtaking opening that serves as a warning. What is about to happen is going to get, very, very ugly. Once we've had a moment to compose ourselves we're dropped back into the movie and we meet Jaime (Fernando Cayo) and Marta (Ana Wagener) along with their 18 year-old daughter Isa (Manuela Vellés), who are moving into a swank new house. We spend some time with the family, mostly getting to know things about them that will reappear later in the narrative with a red herring or two thrown in for good measure. It's a typical domestic scene with squabbles and compromises, and just as we're beginning to understand the dynamics and actually begin to care about these characters, three masked man suddenly and violently storm the house and whatever promise the film had to be something special gets cornered and held hostage along with the rest of the family.
What emerges is a story, written by Vivas and Javier García, that will not be a surprise to anyone whose seen "Panic Room," "The Strangers" or "Funny Games" -- it's a home invasion, and what starts as a simple robbery gets severely and bloodily complicated and yet, totally predictable. The leader of the group of men gets all the family credit cards and with his two cohorts watching over the women, takes Jaime out for a drive to an ATM to withdraw as much as he can from all the cards. But back at the house, things are slowly simmering to a boil. As is usual with these kinds of movies, one of the two hoods back at the house is a cocaine-sniffing lunatic who is trying to find any excuse possible to rape and/or abuse the women, while his partner tries desperately to keep him at bay and the situation from spiraling out of control.
As the film reaches its midway point, a curious thing happens. Vivas and Garcia begin to take a perverse joy in tormenting their victims in the story, particularly the women. And the film, which had sided with the plight of the family early on becomes much more interested in inflicting brutal violence and senseless cruelties on Marta and Isa for no real reason it seems. If there was any greater subtext to the proceedings aside from the cursory nods to race and class we didn't catch it and even then, those themes seem like an afterthought. The brunt of the punishment falls on Isa, who is bravely played by Vellés in a role that requires her to whimper and hyperventilate for pretty much the entire second half of the movie. And while this relentless wave of inhumanity does at least make one kill have an incredibly satisfying payoff, it locks Vivas and Garcia into a narrative corner they can't get out of except by ending the film on a note of savage darkness, followed by a peppy song on the soundtrack in an attempt to be cynical and arch that is completely unearned.
The film's technical claim to fame is that it contains only twelve shots and if "Kidnapped" does have any redeeming qualities, its in the aesthetic, an "The Office" style faux doc approach opens up the mostly house bound tale. And the picture does contain at least one truly great sequence, an attempted escape by Marta and Isa that is done in a split screen with one half focused on their desperate attempt to flee, and the other on the villains trying to contain them while also using the daughter's boyfriend César (Xoel Yáñez) -- who shows up in an awful case of wrong time, wrong place --as bait.
But it's a fleeting moment as Rivas seems to have the most fun when he's mucking about in spilled blood, breaking limbs or thoroughly violating the women in the film. Running under ninety minutes, by the time you're halfway through the movie, the realization hits that the story will be offering nothing more and the film settles in a dull tedium. We've seen this sort of calculated, cold and intensely inhuman film time and again, and Rivas brings nothing new to the equation except a "Rope"-style structure that is not particularly memorable or noteworthy given the run-and-gun shooting approach. Exploitative and sensational, "Kidnapped" is a sorry excuse for a genre film, one that studiously ignores any chances to bring shade and depth to the one-note proceedings, and a picture that will steal your money and time. [D]