Tuesday, 17 July 2007

The New Sadism postscript

Following my writeup on The New Sadism last month, I thought it would be worth posting my review of Captivity. This has been the most notorious of the recent torture-focused horror movies, even before anyone had seen it. Now that about 3 people went to it on its first weekend, it's still the most hated. But I see a clear difference in what's going on in this film than in Saw. Just don't ask me to watch it again.

The Review (as written for The Coast):

Let's assume Captivity is smarter than anybody but its makers recognize. This isn't too outlandish a supposition. Captivity has been the target of scorn for months. Its controversial LA billboards led to numerous op-ed pieces about the state of horror films. The trailer just leaves one puzzling over who'd want to see such a thing. Even with all this hatred lowering expectations, the reality of Captivity is that it's so unpleasant, the few people prone to look for virtues in it either won't go see it or will be too appalled to make the effort.

Captivity is a stupid movie made by smart people, meaning it's not as dumb as it looks. Roland Joffe and screenwriter Larry Cohen stage their critique of celebrity-obsession. "You know something is real when you can touch it," is the movie's repeated mantra. Because celebrities are untouchable, that makes them not real, and henceforth "victimless" targets of society's impotent rage. Celebrated New York fashion scenester Jennifer Tree (Elisha Cuthbert) wakes up to find herself trapped in a cellar where she's toyed with through video images, torture devices, and merchandise of herself.

It's almost a one-woman show, punctuated by a repeated pattern where Jennifer freaks out, and then Joffe breaks the scene with a fade-out. It's agonizing, but appropriately so. The film serves as the third in writer Cohen's Phone Trilogy, following Phone Booth and Cellular. Captivity has Jennifer text messaging her high society friends at the start, only to go crazy in a space without any communicative means.

The irony is that Captivity is ABOUT the things it's hated for - a culture that views women as objects, fascination with death and mutilation, turning to the misery of others for our entertainment. When it develops a sly sense of humour in the final half there are even a couple great B-movie shocks. The end plays more honestly as a feminist horror film than Hostel Part II.

If Captivity can't be endorsed, it's because it's cheapened by its most gratuitous gore. When producers caught wind of the controversy the movie was generating, they shot more violence to meet the hype. Scenes of force fed cannibalism and the consumption of battery acid are nasty in any context. Especially when they have none.


Jesse Dangerously said...

Even without the additional violence - do you feel like it was in any way functional as a critique of what it was "about"? Lord knows I'm not seeing it so I gotta trust you on this matter.

I feel like sometimes fairly vile products get some mileage out of claiming they're "about" what they depict, rather than serving to merely glorify it (see: gangsta rap) but in many cases, there's no critique and thus it's a specious defense that smacks of nothing more than a displacement of guilt.

I know you said Captivity was dumb, but I'm curious as to how much leeway you're willing to give its creators for being smarter (and presumably better, ethically) than this. Like, is it better than calling some guy a faggot and then being like "No you don't understand, I'm using irony to COMMENT on homophobia!" when you're called on it?

Mark Palermo said...

I do think Captivity is functional as a critique. And my modest approval of the film came from me feeling a sense of agreement with the filmmakers when I was watching it (though the added sadism on display is really hard to get around.) I believe Captivity is made by people who are genuinely disturbed about the world. The futility of that is that a large part of the audience for this film is not.

I can't analyze any possible "acceptable" scenario for someone to use the word faggot, but with movies I see it like this: Most people are not knowingly malicious, but are often misguided. If a movie is to deal with dark subject matter it has to believe in an ideal. It has to. Or else it's fraudulent like Saw II, prefering everything remain in darkness because it's more comfortable that way. That's real smut.

Captivity often plays as an exploitation film, but it's built upon real uneasiness. I can only call it like I perceive it. Is Captivity bad for the world? Maybe. Maybe that makes it irresponsible. But I suspect that has to do with how its intentions are misinterpreted as opposed to what they are. Art is complicated. And I think it's healthier for culture, and people, if Captivity gets debated rather than dismissed on principle.