On subject matter alone, Captive is a pretty ballsy film. It’s based on a notorious Atlanta incident from ten years ago that some will recall: Convicted rapist Brian Nichols shot up a courtroom and fled authorities, then held young, widowed, meth-addict single mother Ashley Smith captive in her home. But after a long night in which Smith read to Nichols from Rick Warren’s religious self-help book The Purpose-Driven Life and talked to him about God, the situation ended without further violence, and Nichols surrendered to the cops.
So, here we have a kidnapping-thriller setup, but it really turns out to be a chamber piece focused on two people confined to a small home. What’s more, it de-escalates: It’s not about a situation growing more desperate, but rather about two people coming together on a question of religious faith — and not just any old religious faith, but an Evangelical, mass-market, megachurch brand of religious faith. So, not your average Hollywood movie.
The parts of Nichols and Smith are played by David Oyelowo and Kate Mara, two actors whose stock has risen immeasurably in the last couple of years. Both are smart choices because they can find drama in stillness, and Captive is a quiet movie; instead of playing up the violence or fear, the whole film has a grim pall over it. Ingmar Bergman, were he still alive and wont to make movies in which Rick Warren books play pivotal roles, could have had a field day with this type of material. (Instead, the film is in the hands of veteran journeyman Jerry Jameson, who has a long line of TV credits to his name, plus some campy ‘70s disaster fare like Raise the Titanic and Airport ‘77.)
As Martin Luther King in last year’s Selma, Oyelowo captured a spellbinding middle ground between sobriety and solemnity; he let King’s frustration, his anger, and even his occasional shame seep through ever so quietly. As the ambitious, doomed journalist Zoe Barnes on House of Cards, Mara was calculating, curious, and cool. These qualities serve both actors well, at least at first: Oyelowo’s Nichols isn’t so much unhinged as exasperated; he insists he’s innocent of the rape charge, and we briefly wonder if he might be, even though we also just watched him shoot three people and beat another. Smith, meanwhile, is certainly terrified, but also starting to think, trying to figure out a way out of her ordeal. Even police interactions seem muted: Michael K. Williams and Carmen Sandoval play the two cops trying to track Nichols down, and the hubbub at the station in their scenes feels like it’s been brought down to the level of a comfy drone in the background.
Alas, the quietude eventually veers into somnolence, and the energy drains out of the movie. Part of the problem is that, like so many other mainstream films that treat the issue of religion and religious epiphanies, the story glosses over the religion part. Yes, we get scenes of Ashley reading from Rick Warren’s book to Brian — there’d be no movie otherwise — but they feel strangely rushed, almost anticlimactic. (Not unlike last year’s Unbroken, the film saves the real God stuff for the end credits, where we get footage of Ashley’s appearance on Oprah, with a special visit from Warren himself.)
Plus, in the movie, Ashley has just recently been given the book by someone at rehab; it’s almost as new to her as it is to him. In real life, the very devout Smith had been at the book for some time, making a reading from it (along with her Bible) part of her daily routine. Have the filmmakers changed this for dramatic purposes (making her discover the book along with Brian aligns their journeys more closely) or for political convenience (if she were too religious, the movie might alienate a broader audience)? It doesn’t really matter. Because either way, it doesn’t work onscreen. Religion was clearly a huge part of Ashley Smith’s life, and one suspects that her devotion played a role in her ability to speak to Nichols; here, she does it in such a halfhearted way that it’s hard to understand how she ever had an effect on him.
As a godless heathen, I find myself in the weird position of wanting more religion in this movie. That’s because one need not be religious to appreciate the power of this story: It’s about people realizing they can find purpose in their lives. But it’s a realization they come to by being told God has put them on this earth for a reason, so religion is at the heart of their understanding of it — and they are, after all, the people we’re watching. Take that away, or underplay it, and you’re left with no real catharsis — religious or emotional. And without that, Captive winds up building to a big nothing.