“Some things,” says dead-meat mom Alison (Amy Irving) at the beginning of Hide and Seek, “are beyond therapy.” She’s talking to her grumpy psychologist husband David (Robert De Niro, who at this point might as well stick to those classy American Express commercials), but the diagnosis applies to the film more broadly. While it’s tempting to pick apart this January-dump release, it also doesn’t quite seem worth the effort.
Within minutes, Alison has played a brief game of hide and seek with her adorably waify daughter Emily (Dakota Fanning), who giggles, “I’m invisible, Mommy!” in a faintly portentous way. Mom then retires to the tub, which she has surrounded with ceremonial candles and into which she has sunk, looking so very sad. And within a couple more minutes, she’s dead, the tub water red with the effect of her slashed wrists, and her body gathered into the wailing David’s arms. Emily stands at the bathroom door, her face suddenly collapsed, pasty gray and gaunt.
Cut to some time later, at New York City Children’s Hospital, and Emily is full-blown Trauma Girl, staring out a window as her father and his former student and her current shrink Katherine (Famke Janssen) discuss her case (the potential impropriety of this threeway relationship goes unremarked, but it suggests some complicated and compromising entanglement of interests). Warm and nuturing doc says the girl should stay in place, where she can recover among familiar objects and folks; authority figure dad wants to wisk her off to the boonies. Guess who prevails.
Little Trauma Girl—her already wide eyes increasingly encased in dark shadows and her face seemingly more emaciated by the minute—now faces life in a humungous white house in Woodland, a town in upstate NY boasting a population of 2206 and a rainstorm every few minutes. As soon as they arrive, Sheriff Hafferty (Dylan Baker) and real estate guy Mr. Haskins (David Chandler) are hanging about on the lawn, looking creepy and looming over Emily, who refuses to smile or even, as the eerie Fanning plays her, to breathe very comfortably (she seems alternately to be channeling Beetlejuice-era Winona Ryder and Christina Ricci’s Wednesday Addams). As these standard scary-movie eccentrics huff and compliment her beauty, dad hustles her inside, aiming ostensibly to protect her from compounded trauma, but also to keep her hidden from view and from wandering into the spooky woods just steps from their equally ooky front door.
So the scary house scenario begins. David is put off by their neighbors—Steven (Robert John Burke) and Laura (Melissa Leo, for whom we might have wished more, following her stunning turn in 21 Grams)—recently traumatized by the death of their child. And Emily’s soon spending time with her new pretend friend Charlie, with whom she plays that favorite game, hide and seek. She tells David that Charlie’s forbidden her to speak of him, never a good sign (though she’s quite content to make piles of drawings of this new friend, a hulking black figure holding her teeny child’s hand), and blames Charlie for unfortunate events (the tub filled with water, a threatening message scrawled in blood in the bathroom). At one point, David goes so far as to wonder aloud if she’s talking to Charlie when he’s in the room (provoking an inevitably disappointing memory of De Niro in better days: “Are you talkin’ to me?”) and takes Emily out to run errands and fishing and calls it “play.” But for the most part, he ignores his daughter in order to don his headphones and write endlessly in his journal (shades of Jack Torrance).
It’s not hard to see where this is headed (and still, the studio has made loud noises about keeping the “final reel” a secret, a marketing strategy that smacks of anxiety), as Katherine (usually playing her part by phone) is painfully slow on the uptake (“Trauma causes pain,” she advises David, “and the mind will find a way to release it”), and Emily (definitely on the front lines) grapples with repeated devastation and horror, with no help from the so-called adults.
While she’s surely having trouble with her father’s distractedness, Emily is further upset when David shows interest in a perky local lady, Elizabeth (Elisabeth Shue), who wears cleavage-baring summer dresses, no matter the weather, and happens to be the aunt/babysitter for a girl about Emily’s age. One of the film’s most alarming moments comes when this girl hands Emily her doll, and Trauma Girl mushes the toy’s face in with her thumbs. Still, David insists that he can bring her around, despite Katherine’s suggestion that she’s regressing and needs to come home to the city. If only, if only.
Emily’s victimization is eventually less entertaining than it is revealing, of the film’s inability to parse cultural themes or psychological emblems. Rife with logic holes and tedium, Hide and Seek—unimaginatively—focuses on the blood family, the many threats against it, tossed by circumstances and deliberate betrayals. The child’s understanding of these threats is shaped by influences that, again, are not hard to guess. Still, even as Emily tries so very hard to absorb her father’s pain, she’s in over her head.