Stealing More than a Scene: Kidnapping in Film

In truth, it’s not the simplest of crimes to commit. One has to first contemplate a target, one willing to inspire panic (but not police) in the potential payer – ransom, that is. Next, one must come up with a complex plan to capture and keep them. It can’t be blatant or conspicuous. Holding back one’s identity from both the hostage and the holder of their fate is key. Then there’s the whole care and comfort element matched with the pragmatics of the monetary demands and swap. Cash – or some other valuable commodity – must change hands in way that keeps things from spiraling out of control. Then, and only then, after all these pieces have fallen perfectly into place, can the concept of escape even be considered, the ‘where’ and ‘how’ of hiding out and avoiding justice just as important as picking the proper mark was in the first place.

No wonder so many of these attempted offenses go so horribly, horribly wrong. Even more obvious is how reliable and resilient the subject is as a movie topic. While long a part of literature, the act has become a notoriously 20th century specialty. From the frenzy over the Lindberg baby to the national news hour pastime of the Patty Hearst case, kidnapping has wormed its way into the public consciousness in a way few felonies have managed. Perhaps only serial murder has more mass multimedia meaning. Of course, today, most abductions revolve around nationalities not knowing their place (or political potency) in another’s unsettled land. Indeed, most of the time, terrorism is the tag given to such cases of false imprisonment. What does this all mean? Most of the time, it means boffo box office, baby.

Indeed, ever since Robert Louis Stevenson fascinated readers with his appropriately entitled book Kidnapping, fans have flocked to these stories. Sometimes, they are in service of straight ahead action (Taken, Ransom). In other instances, comedy can come into play (Raising Arizona, Fargo). They can be part of the plot (Prizzi’s Honor) or a mere side note in another, more important story (the recent rash of War of Terror titles such as Syriana and Rendition). When they focus on actual cases, the results can range from magical (Dog Day Afternoon) to ‘meh’ (the prosaic Patty Hearst). Even a recent film like The Entitled (new to DVD and Blu-ray from Anchor Bay) recognize the routine nature of the concept, creating more and more complex situations to avoid many of the possible pitfalls.

This is especially true of this latest release. The Entitled offers a desperate bike courier (Kevin Zegers) who needs money…and he needs it fast. His mother is dying, she’s about to lose her house, and her medical bills are piling up. With the help of a couple cohorts, our hero devises what he believes is a simple plan: he will kidnap a trio of spoiled socialites and force their well off daddies to ‘buy’ them back. Initially, everything goes as planned. Then schisms begin to appear between the differing parties. The kidnappers come to blows over a case of deadly force. The hostages have their own secret agendas. And as for the fathers – well, it’s interesting to note how quickly they reconsider their parentage when the question of parting with their copious cash comes into play.

Naturally, things don’t go as scheduled and definitely don’t end well – and that’s the problem with kidnapping – and kidnapping films – in general. Unlike the heist genre, which gets off on a flawless recreation of a well prepared plan of action, this particular motion picture type thrives on complications and incompleteness. For H.I. McMcDunnough and his wife Edwina, it’s the unexpected arrival of Gale and Evelle Snoats…as well as the unknown menace of the Warthog Bounty Hunter Biker from Hell, Leonard Smalls. For Mel Gibson’s disagreeable dad in Ransom, it’s having his outward confrontation of the killers turn into the realization of a decidely inside job. Of course, the threat can go the opposite way. The idiots who remove Bryan Mills’ daughter from her Paris digs never realize what they have ‘taken.’ Our highly trained retired CIA hitman absolutely makes them pay for their stupidity.

It’s a constant theme – whatever can go wrong will within the confines of both good and evil. It’s Murphy’s Law played for even higher stakes. In situations such as Swordfish, the high tech threat can’t overcome a trigger happy (or order prone) Federal Agent. Similarly, a slow witted thug will happily murder his prisoner from screaming over his soap opera (Fargo)…and without a hostage, where is the pecuniary leverage? Something similar happens in The Entitled, derailing our lead’s plans in the process. It’s the invention of changing strategies and the inevitability of the outcome that drives these narratives. When the victim ends up violated, it changes the theoretical offense into a more mean-spirited and visceral ideal.

Indeed, one of the most unique examples of this very type comes from one of the most unusual and gifted fright filmmakers in the world – Dario Argento. His brutal and uncompromising movie The Stendahl Syndrome sees a young police woman (played by the director’s daughter, Asia) repeated abducted by a sadistic serial killer. Interspersed among the terrifying scenes of torture and rape, our villain voices his motives for such a spree…and the insights are astonishing. Sure, they are wrapped up in ridiculous pseudo-psychobabble killer speak, but they also suggest a strange, almost surreal need to capture and hold. In fact, when you toss aside the possible monetary gain, the real reason for most kidnappings come to the fore – control. When you hold another’s loved one against their will, you gain all the advantage. The upper hand rests solely within your – skilled or sloppy – grasp. Instead of right and wrong, it’s more a battle of the empowered vs. the now powerless.

It’s also what makes these movies so entertaining. Even in their lesser form – and one could argue that The Entitled is just that: a lesser crime drama – there is still that spark, that back and forth between purpose and pretense, plan and payoff that almost always results in some amount of suspense and satisfaction. When done well, when the various filmmaking facets fall effortless into place and the crime and possible punishment become mere cogs in a creative machine that manipulates and manhandles our already ripe expectations, everyone wins. Of course, when you realize just how thorny the reality is, when the horrors of actual hostage situations show their menacing mantle, the contrivances and coincidences of the genre come clear. Kidnapping is complicated. Luckily, the movies made about same are substantially easier to digest – and enjoy.

RATING 6 / 10