With well-known actors and a provocative premise, it’s surprising to see a film like The Factory go straight to DVD (sans bonus features or scene selection options). It hits all the high notes: abduction, abuse, murder, and even fatherly heroics. But this film’s failure to make an impact is perhaps due to too strict an adherence to the thriller formula. In the end, The Factory leaves you with nothing new, only a sense that you’ve somehow seen it before.
Every year when the snow begins to fall in Buffalo, prostitutes disappear off the streets. The wintery setting is no doubt one of the few remnants of this Quebec-produced film’s Alaskan roots, supposedly “inspired by actual events” surrounding the state’s notorious serial predator, Robert Hansen. But the similarities end there. In The Factory, in three years of investigation no bodies have ever been found, and the unfruitful search for these runaways and street walkers has been tabled. “Now they’re just missing girls that nobody missed.”
Officer Mike Fletcher (John Cusack) has been on this case from the beginning. He’s so dedicated to finding these forgotten girls that his amicable relationship with his partner, Kelsey Walker (Jennifer Carpenter), is more tangible than any of those with family. Yet the interactions between Mike and Kelsey somehow seem hollow. Kelsey doesn’t seem to have much of a life, or personality, or even purpose. After declining the Fletcher family’s invitation to join them for Thanksgiving, Mike’s wife Shelley (Sonya Walger) even comments on how the poor girl is barren, both biologically and socially.
Signalled by the pair’s continued investigation despite the order to close the case, The Factory’s plot is tenuous. It’s rife with convenient coincidences, the most overt of which being the unplanned, random abduction of Mike’s daughter, Abby (Mae Whitman), by the very man he is hunting. Thus imbued with all the customary motivations — anger, fear, desperation, self-doubt — Mike’s behavior becomes predictably erratic. While this may seem oxymoronic, the audience expects that his daughter’s disappearance will destabilize Mike, leading him to make questionable decisions, involving, for example, searches without warrants and reckless driving on perilous winter roads. Yet despite the apparent depth of his motives, Cusack’s performance is shallow; we are only occasionally privy to Mike’s inner thoughts, making even his understandable zeal seem out of control and ultimately unbelievable.
Complicating the viewer’s investment in the characters still further, the damsel in distress is thoroughly unlikeable for a significant portion of the film. A classically confused and over-emotional 17-year-old girl, Abby exhibits hostility and hypersensitivity in all her interactions. In fact, it’s her own foolishness that ultimately provokes her abduction, making it difficult to identify with her or even consider her a legitimate victim. Gradually, the terrors of her captivity engender boldness, even heroism, belatedly endearing Abby to the audience toward the end of the film. While Whitman’s performance initially is patently overdramatic, she must be given credit for achieving the most powerful character growth in the film.
Carl Gemeaux (Dallas Roberts) compellingly balances instability and insecurity with authority and potency, making this serial killer both complex and terrifyingly twisted. His emphasis on family embodies his inner contradictions — family is faithful, family is forever, and growing the family is of utmost importance, yet at the same time any perceived treason elicits its destruction at his hands. With Carl’s unsustainable philosophy as absolute rule, his victims also sink into psychosis, manifesting in a serious case of Stockholm syndrome. He builds the sense of family into their trauma, rewarding self sacrifice on behalf of the group, punishing disobedience with fatherly disappointment rather than simple anger, and maintaining his position as the head of the household by forestalling any solidarity among the women through forced mutual injury and betrayal.
But any good thriller has to have a big twist at the end, right? Fear not, The Factory’s got you covered. The many clues sprinkled throughout the film will easily tip off the astute observer, especially due to the utter lack of red herrings. But the big reveal is more generally underwhelming, because it immediately features all these clues in flashbacks, depriving the viewer of any chance to decipher the mystery independently. Paradoxically, the overt identification of these clues both squelches the shock by making the final twist appear obvious and predictable, and is also insufficient explanation. The use of flashback forces a focus on only familiar scenarios, abandoning any new or supplementary parts of the puzzle that could produce a richer, more comprehensive conclusion and thereby elicit a more satisfying reaction.
Alas, while The Factory seems to have everything going for it, it’s merely another cookie-cutter project. Lacking anything unique to make it stand out from the thriller genre, a formula to which it strictly adheres, this film simply fails to follow through on its potential.