Women’s inferiority — in fact, their malevolence — is as ingrained in American popular culture as it is anywhere they’re sporting burkhas.
— Joss Whedon (Whedonesque 20 May 2007)
These people tried to play the MPAA and the MPAA came back.
— Unnamed MPAA Executive, “‘Captivity,’ The Discipline” (Hollywood Reporter 30 March 2007)
Months before its release, Captivity was notorious. Its early (March 2007) ad campaign showed its young heroine’s stages of abuse and apparent death, with clever subtitles like “Abduction” and “Torture.” Following a public outcry, Lionsgate blamed the campaign on After Dark, After Dark said it was an accident, and the MPAA postponed the film’s rating review, thus delaying its proposed May release. The ads were withdrawn, though not before attracting the attention of Joss Whedon, who compared the film’s premise — a girl’s torture framed for viewer consumption — to a CNN piece showing the “honor killing” of a Kurdish girl, Dua Khalil, stoned and beaten by men she knew, a scene captured by witnesses’ cell phones, then broadcast for all the world to see.
Whedon’s outrage continues to resonate, as does his target. For, of course, the film — shot in Moscow in 2005, the first US-Russian co-production — went forward, released to theaters with an R rating intended to maximize profits. Reportedly re-edited to enhance its gore quotient and all but renounced by director Roland Joffé, it earned a paltry $1.55 million. Hardly exceptional in its brutality or attitude, and distinctly feeble in execution, the film features any number of bad ideas, from its ordinary psycho-killer to obvious plot twist to inept would-be rescuers.
The staleness of the setup is indicated in the first shots of the victim, New York City-based model Jennifer Tree (Elisha Cuthbert). First glimpsed in dire close-up as she applies frighteningly red lip gloss to her lips, she is soon revealed at work — posing perfectly and vaguely encouraged by the photographer (“Very good”). Yes, she’s objectified, you get it. She also appears on repeated billboards and bus placards, the body attached to a smug ad campaign that asks, “Do you dare to wear Jennifer?” She spends a precious few moments with her fluffy white pooch Suzy (“The only one that loves me”), then makes her way (alone, a supposedly world-famous model traveling sans driver or escort through darkest Manhattan) to her next job, an appearance at a loud and pulsing night club where she sulks in a chair and orders an apple martini.
All this while, the framing underlines that she is also observed by someone in a dark hoodie (Pruitt Taylor Vince), and that you are aligned with his point of view. Sure enough, the villain attracts her attention (after dropping knockout drugs into her martini while it sits on the bar awaiting pickup — the club is plainly not monitored in any serious way) by leaving a camera on a tripod in the empty, very dark hallway outside the bathroom. She’s unsteady on her feet but inexorably drawn to the lens (so shallow and deserving of comeuppance!). She’s also slightly disturbed to find it running images of her from eariler in the day, just before she passes out. Hoodie man drags her away without objection from anyone on the loud and pulsing premises.
At his lair, she is taunted and tortured for days. Among the meanness is the old ocular tease (she believes she’s looking out a window at palm trees and water, only to discover it’s an apparently miraculously perfect projection on a roughhewn cinderblock wall!) and the even older strapped-into-the-dentist’s-chair abjection. Here she’s forced to watch a video of a previous victim screaming in terror (“I’m sorry!”) as a shower of acid turns her skin raw and red. Ooh, yes, he’s vile.
When Jennifer is also screaming, “I’m sorry!”, it’s hard not to think of Whedon’s objection, as she’s apparently apologizing for being alive, for being a tease in the mind of her abuser, for attracting the attention of this gnarly, woebegone figure who doesn’t so much as grunt as he applies various tortures — including an especial set-piece in which he forces her by funnel to ingest a bloody blended concoction of human eyeball and entrails. Yucky: check.
At the end of each episode, Jennifer passes out, allowing for fades-to-black and a seeming abstraction for the entire business that emulates her lack of coherence (she’s subjected to a needle in her arm periodically) and calls to mind the film’s presumed re-cutting by studio hacks. Poor film, poor victim, poor you. The film does briefly complicate your identification with Jennifer, as the stalker replays her petty TV interviews as background derision: she makes inane observations concerning her fears (e.g., darkness) and intellectual shortcomings (“It’s not just me: it’s a scientific fact: beauty rules, it always has and it always will”). Plainly, she deserves what’s coming, being so self-centered and simple and annoying.
And so the killer proceeds to enact Jennifer’s due punishment, forcing her to don bondage-girl outfits, drowning her in sand in a glass box, and even making her watch the gruesome demise of Suzy, shot to white fluffy/bloody smithereens. At last Jennifer discovers a fellow captive, lo!, locked in a room right next door and visible through a glass wall covered over with scratch-offable paint. The sight of Gary (Daniel Gillies) heartens her but troubles you: his sudden appearance is ridiculously convenient and his pretty-boy bravado (“You sick piece of crap!”) is more corny than reassuring.
When Jennifer asks how long Gary has been locked up, he looks defeated and maybe mad and murmurs, “I have no fucking sense of time.” Ah, but you do, the minutes of your own life ticking away as you wait for one or the other victim to get a clue. “Right now,” says Gary, “I’m thanking god I’m not alone.” How gallant. Inevitably, escapes appear possible only to be snatched away, and Jennifer seems more willfully brain-dead with each incident. The stalker helps out with snatches of inanity via the intercom (“Why do bad things happen to good people?, you ask. That‘s the mystery”) and Jennifer assesses, “We’re not getting out of here are we? He’s playing with us, showing his power.”
Ah, the power, the power. How is it that damaged boys repeatedly find power in abusing vulnerable girls (or girl-like substitutes)? It’s not even that torture porn in and of itself is a terrible phenomenon, as some versions do make credible critiques of culture-wide misogyny or racism. But Captivity is not in the least transgressive of its system; rather, it reinforces the pathology it represents. Insidiously and unsurprisingly, it tries to have it all ways, condemning the killer’s self-importance and Jennifer’s superficiality, while also scolding the high-fashion imagery that encourages him to desire and hate her at the same time. The fact that the film also suggests the killer has a homosexual attraction to his own brother, plus soul-crushing flashbacks to a sexually abusive, drugged-out mother doesn’t quite excuse him, but does — predictably and quite painfully — find a way to blame a woman for what’s wrong with him.