In 2003, an ambitious yet altogether lacking film called Party Monster was released to little fanfare (although it would later gain something of a cult following), but within it lay a piece of advice the makers of the independent thriller Captives were sure to take, even if they'd never seen it before. “I think it's so important to begin with a bang, don't you? Let 'em know something horrible is going to happen and then poof! We're suddenly elsewhere.” James St. James' explanation of the popular filmmaking technique is as good as any, and is certainly effective in explaining its appeal. Captives opens on the heavy breathing of an unidentified female, and after several flashes of a woman held 'captive' if you will, it goes on to display the title screen and then “poof!” we dissolve to a point much earlier in the story.
Captives is director and writer Randall Chu's debut film, made over ten days with a guerrilla film crew and a couple of Panasonic AG digital cameras. While visibly limited by its budget, Chu's eye for composition does at times break through and deliver high quality shots, although the realism is broken by clunky camera movements and a half-hearted dedication (subconscious or not) to the cinema verite school.
The movie comes equipped with some passable acting by Len Cordova, Stephanie Denise Griffin, and Kyle Vogt (Leah Allers as Naomi stands out in the latter quarter of the film), compelling plot twists and functionally sound camera-work. However, what keeps Captives from being a true standout in the super-saturated market of the independent thriller is the writing. Chu has a knack for creating interesting situations, and I assume his outline looked very good on paper, but the dialogue is so wooden and lifeless, some points are stripped of all realism and left as plain exposition, so far as to become like an itch you can't scratch. At first you ignore it, but it continues to itch so bad that you just start rubbing your back against walls.
The plot concerns two couples, one of which contains an overbearing husband and a throw-rug of a wife, the other a wacky, spontaneous, thrill-seeking couple of suckers for excitement. The first couple takes a vacation to Los Angeles, where the second couple lives, and find themselves kidnapped. Unraveling throughout the film is the history of these two couples and the consequences of the second's thrill-seeking behavior. An inspired subplot between one of the wives (Leah Allers) and her doctor (the film's best actor, Fred Ochs) turns Bressonian, although it really never goes beyond the point of being a momentary lapse in the forward momentum of the picture.
As a filmmaker, Chu is of the school that lives by the idea that redundancies can be telling; at times he has characters repeat the same sentence with different wording as many as three times without any real variance in tone or meaning. When Chu forgets about moving the plot along the dialogue reflects this as it takes on a life of its own and it's in these moments where the characters speak in their own vernacular that he shows a flare for conversation. Influences range from Hitchcock to Ozu to the new wave of horror, the Saws and Hostels without the torture porn aspect. The film works best when it's allowed to meander off course, little excursions into the real lives of the characters beyond their archetypal designs give them a depth that is only hinted at during other portions.
Not a bad film, but an ineffective one, Captives shows the potential for goodness, without itself being particularly good. Chu has no reason to be ashamed of this effort, but it will obviously be a few more runs around the track before he crafts anything of real value. Still, he may be worth keeping an eye on.