Landing with a resounding splat somewhere between the realm of the truly repellent and the unintentionally funny, Roland Joffe’s Captivity is either just another entry in the torture-porn sweepstakes, or a completely unsuccessful attempt at using the sub-genre for purposes of social criticism. Considering the participation of the once prestigious Joffe (The Killing Fields) as director and quirky horror schlockmeister Larry Cohen as screenwriter, I’m inclined to believe it’s the latter.
While Cohen’s own films have been of the clearly exploitation variety (The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, anyone?), there has always been an undercurrent of clever subversive satire in his work. (His 1985 cult classic The Stuff is, in fact, a scathing indictment of American consumerism.) It’s therefore not unreasonable to assume that he had something on his mind here—and there’s some evidence of it on the screen.
The film’s “heroine,” Jennifer (Elisha Cuthbert, TV’s 24), is a vacuous model—presented as a kind of actually attractive Paris Hilton—with zero personality, who’s becomes a prisoner of her own image. The film is extremely unsubtle about this prisoner aspect, having her destroy her fake iconic self in order to find literal freedom. There’s also an apparent parallel being drawn between her willfully chugging down a vile-looking trendy health drink and being force-fed (with a funnel) a puree of random body parts by her deranged captor. Unfortunately, neither Cohen, nor Joffe, nor Cuthbert have bothered to make the character even marginally interesting or sympathetic, so it all results in a resounding, “Who cares?”
What plot there is consists of Jennifer being kidnapped from a nightclub, imprisoned in one of those tricked-out cells only the movies could imagine (I’d love to see the blueprints for the architecturally improbable house that contains this), and subjected to various horrific indignities. That’s about it, despite the existence of a “mystery” aspect involving her and fellow prisoner Gary (Daniel Gillies, who proves that it is possible to give a worse performance than Cary Elwes in Saw)—an aspect that has the advantage of being preposterous yet predictable.
The truly peculiar thing about all of this is that Jennifer isn’t so much tortured as she’s torture-pranked. The movie is structured—if that it can be called—largely as a series of black-out skits with horror elements replacing pratfalls and punch lines. Jennifer is constantly subjected to some threat or humiliation, only to be knocked out and returned unharmed to her cell. After she was supposedly subjected to a shower of acid in the face—set up by showing her the real thing with a previous victim—and emerges bandaged and made up to appear maimed, but otherwise unhurt, I was expecting at any moment the madman at the helm to subject her to joke-shop plastic puke or “doggy-doo.” I suppose this is all under the heading of psychological torture, but it plays like the psychotic version of ringing a doorbell and then hiding in the shrubbery.
Sure, it’s occasionally gross, but it’s never scary. Often as not, it’s merely incomprehensible or annoyingly inconclusive. Jennifer’s cell has four numbered doors—kind of like a potentially lethal variant on Let’s Make a Deal minus “lovely Carol Merrill” to demonstrate what’s behind door number three—but not only is there never anything frightening behind the doors, the film just skips over two of them. There’s a scene where some mice are gassed to death that goes nowhere. Jennifer is forced to shoot her dog in order to save herself—only she doesn’t really, see, because it’s just another prank, but then the whole dog aspect is just dropped. And since Jennifer is never forced to perform in a Sergeant Pepper tribute band, the reason for dressing her up in a marching band jacket is vague to say the least.
The scenes where Jennifer and Gary communicate with each other by scratching words into the black paint on the glass that divides their cells makes no sense, because both sides would have to be painted black for them to do this, right? So how could the person on the other side see what’s written? Moreover, as if to prove just how rude Jennifer is, she, unlike Gary, doesn’t bother to write backwards so that it can be easily read by the person on the other side. It’s all sloppy and appallingly stupid, which is perhaps the nicest thing that can be said about Captivity. Rated R for strong violence, torture, pervasive terror, grisly images, language and some sexual material.