A little over ten years ago, a single mother in Georgia survived a nightmare. After being accosted by an armed fugitive, Ashley Smith was held captive by Brian Nichols for seven hours as a manhunt raged throughout the state. She knew he’d already killed that day in a brazen jailhouse escape. Remarkably, she kept her cool, cajoling her captor with pancakes, conversation, drugs and A Purpose Driven Life. This is the incredible story at the center of Captive, which curiously failed all of my expectations. For worse and better.
As a hostage-situation drama, my first expectation of Captive was for it to be claustrophobic in its tension. After all, most of the film would presumably be set in Ashley’s apartment made prison by an unhinged intruder. As a sucker for home invasion narratives, I suspected this element would keep me at the edge of my seat, as the first 7/8ths of The Gift did (before it became a grotesque misogynist pile of nonsense slop). My other expectation was based on Ashley’s employment of A Purpose Driven Life in her harrowing night.
As a lapsed Catholic who believes we are responsible for changing what we don’t like in our lives, I dreaded the thought of a faith-based drama preaching how prayer will save us all with a real life deus ex machina. (Looking at you War Room.) But having never read Rick Warren’s religious self-help book, I tried to keep an open-mind. And in this religious regard, I was pleasantly surprised.
The book’s inclusion in the film—though heavily promoted in the trailer—seems almost an after thought. Ashley (Kate Mara) reluctantly receives it as a gift at a support group she attends for her meth addiction. Later, after much crying and shuddering, the exhausted hostage picks the book up for the first time while Brian (David Oyelowo) looks on. Per his insistence, she reads aloud, as she will again hours later. But it’s not played as an apparent strategy on Ashley’s part, more happenstance. Only the clips of the real Ashley on Oprah, which roll during the final credits, make Captive any sort of earnest commercial for The Purpose Driven Life.
But perhaps more important, the message the movie distills from the book is one that’s hard to get riled by. Essentially, it says that when you have lost all hope in yourself, God still has faith in you. Use that to inspire you to change. Ashley was a desperate junkie who’d lost custody of her daughter. Brian did ghastly things to escape the lengthy prison sentence that’d was being handed down. They both needed an excuse to will themselves into redemption. And the book’s message offered that.
Sadly this message is slapped into a movie that is incompetent in structure and pacing. Rather than locking us into Ashley’s apartment and thereby her mindset, director Jerry Jameson frequently plucks us out to follow the manhunt led by Detective Chestnut (Michael Kenneth Williams), deflating the building suspense of her situation. There’s no clear sense of how much time has passed from scene to scene, aside from the occasional (and lazy) shot of a clock. So scenes seem to float outside of time, with little tension or sense of escalation. All this makes for a thriller that is painfully boring. And that’s infuriating when you consider the cast!
Hot off his heralded turn as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, David Oyelowo channels a festering rage and radiant pain into Brian. His escape sequence—which includes bludgeoning a cop and fatally shooting trio of courthouse employees while fleeing in a grey steel suit minus a shirt—is by far the film’s most enthralling section. It’s frightening and suspenseful, while Oyelowo is mesmerizing in his calm but concentrated menace. In a different context, he’d be an anti-hero, sexy, deadly and on a mission.*
Oyelowo manages to make Brian terrifying, but not beyond empathy. However, the editing undercuts his efforts. A scene where Brian’s therapist declares him mentally incapable of accepting he raped and assaulted his ex (the crime for which he was in court) comes right before an exposed Brian demands Ashley understand he’s not a bad person and has been falsely accused. The movie gets in its own damn way, barring us from connecting to the man behind the monstrous acts.
As for Mara, she impressively maneuvers through the turns from Smith’s meth highs to her hostage lows. And with Oyelowo, she develops an intriguing relationship. But again, the film’s inability to create a flowing timeline muddies her character’s progression, dulling the audience’s ability to engage with her plight.
So yeah, Captive is a bad movie. But I guess it’s something that it’s a bad movie in a way I didn’t expect. It’s not preachy. It’s just fucking dull.
*Kristy Puchko would like to see Oyelowo in more films wearing a suit and no shirt. It’s a look so appealing she almost doesn’t regret seeing this movie.