Jodie Foster’s face fills the frame. Her taut cheeks, light blue eyes, and pale, pale skin seem almost incandescent. Shot from below, in profile, and straight-on, Foster’s face is the most frequently used and most powerful effect in Flightplan. And it repays attention: whether in crisp shadow or bright illumination, her face reveals complex ranges of emotion and thought.
This effect is surely helpful in making sense of suddenly widowed mother Kyle Pratt, whose role in Robert Schwentke’s film eventually lapses into silly formula. Before that, however, details make her dilemma resonate: grieving, stoic, quietly self-sufficient, Kyle deals with her loss as best she can, directing her energies to the well-being of her six-year-old daughter Julia (Marlene Lawson). Oddly and somewhat compellingly, mom is first revealed not as a mother at all, but as a young-seeming lover, mid-dream. She walks the snowy streets of Berlin with her dead husband (John Benjamin Hickey), pauses briefly to wish he won’t go up to the rooftop from which he fell or jumped. In this gently fragmented opening, you come to understand the crucial point about Kyle: she’s been left.
Following, Kyle heads back to the States, with Julia and the body in tow. Julia’s curiosity about her new life and fears of her old one are rendered in deft, child-attentive strokes: she asks about the food in America and worries when she sees men on a platform de-icing an airplane’s wings, thinking they might fall. The plane in this moment becomes a focus, as Kyle begins to explain specifics. Turns out she’s a propulsion engineer, involved in the new airbus’ design. And so her deep comprehension of its inner workings is set up, useful in the plot to follow.
Methodically and delicately (at least at first), the movie situates mother and daughter on the plane: Julia sits by her window, where she sees the coffin loaded and traces a bound-to-be-significant heart on the foggy window, Kyle puts on her best reassuring performance. Other passengers on the full flight fiddle and make noise (especially the family in the seats just in front of Kyle’s, named “Loud” in the credits), the flight attendants—including “new kid” Fiona (Erika Christensen) and very precise and off-putting Stephanie (Kate Beahan)—strap themselves in for take off. Gargantuan, the plane rises, rattling and groaning occasionally.
The thriller part kicks in when Kyle wakes a couple of hours later to find that Julia is missing. Though she does her best to remain calm and approach crew members and Ken-doll-stiff Captain Rich (Sean Bean) with respect, she’s increasingly unnerved by their suggestions, first that the girl must be somewhere and she’s panicking needlessly, and next, that the girl doesn’t exist. Julia isn’t listed on the manifest and the gate back in Germany has no record of her boarding. Worse, no passengers or attendants recall seeing her. Advised that she’s overreacting, Kyle keeps her own focus clear: “The problem is not that I’m anxious,” she mutters to an attendant assigned to calm her. “The problem is that my daughter’s missing and nobody can tell me where she is.”
The contrast between Kyle’s multiple layers of loss and the flurry of life that goes on without her is briefly compelling. You’re aligned with Kyle’s anxiety, as she’s been your point of identification from frame one, but this also allows the possibility that she’s lost touch, as that first frame was her dream. Maybe she has made up her daughter, maybe, as conveniently available therapist (Greta Scacchi) suggests, Kyle has succumbed to overwhelming anguish and imagined Julia lived when really she died with her father. But you know that’s not true, especially if you walk into the film having seen the trailer—which gives away the significance of that finger-traced heart on Julia’s window. Besides, the therapist is so Dr. Philishly smarmy that her instructions to Kyle quite push you back into Kyle’s corner. The rest of these people are just trying to smooth over another plane-confined crisis.
This location, so gimmicky and so functional for a certain sort of thriller (see, most recently, Red Eye), is eventually a problem for Flightplan. As the movie becomes increasingly immersed in the problems of space—the various places Julia might be hidden or hiding, the particular authority granted to guardians of the airplane’s compartments and areas (first class, coach, the cockpit, baggage), Kyle is increasingly able to circumvent (as she knows the plane so well). The movie also makes use of current airplane anxieties, as when Kyle briefly thinks a couple of Arab passengers (Michael Irby and Assaf Cohen) who look at her funny are involved in her daughter’s disappearance, an accusation that invites fellow passengers to act out their own racism and disquiet, only underlined by the lack of space.
But this is only distraction. You share Kyle’s sense of oppressive judgment. The shrink’s smarmy affect is only underlined when Air Marshal Gene Carson (Peter Sarsgaard) comes up with some completely inappropriate niggling: “Your husband’s death is starting to make a lot more sense to me—a couple more hours and I’m ready to jump.” Right. With outrageous motivation like that, you’re ready for the silly plot turns that turn Kyle into Action Mom.