Frightfest 2010: THE TORTURED review

Contributor; Derby, England
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Frightfest 2010: THE TORTURED review

If you could film a stereotypical right-wing American couple's worst nightmare, and the fallout that ensued, you'd have Robert Lieberman's The Tortured. It's an ugly, banal little production, part unrepentant torture porn, part clumsy, incomprehensible moralising, and attempting to explain why feels like giving the film more attention than it deserves.

Still, let's try. The Tortured is the story of Craig (Jesse Metcalfe) and Elise (Erika Christensen); they're a nice, clean-cut suburban husband and wife whose perfect life judders to a grinding halt when a paedophile (Bill Mosely) snatches their infant son out of the front yard and murders him before the police can track him down.

Outraged the justice system have only seen fit to hand down a sentence of twenty-five to life, Craig and Elise come up with a plan to abduct the culprit. Driving him to a remote cabin in the woods, they decide to put him through as much pain or worse than their son suffered only - predictably - their initial resolve starts to crumble once they've actually got started.

Mechanically, The Tortured is hardly inept, but it doesn't deliver anything remotely distinguished. Lieberman hits a baseline level of competence but grabs at every tired, predictable cliché in the book from the first few minutes onwards, whether it's an overload of smash cuts, superfluous audio spikes, clumsy foreshadowing or the trite, generic whining of the score.

Much of this could be forgiven if only the film didn't run straight into the same pitfalls which claimed so many revenge thrillers over the past three or four decades. The Tortured isn't simply a case of blatant exploitation - though Lieberman clearly knows precisely what a large section of his target audience will be after, and much of the film is one long sequence of physical or psychological mutilation visited on the couple's hapless victim.

The more significant problem is the director obviously wants to include both sides of the argument, even some deeper nod to moral relativity, but he doesn't have a clue how to handle any such thing. Everything is delivered with enough sledgehammer lack of restraint the film hits such a fevered emotional pitch so quickly, and stays there for so much of the running time, it doesn't remotely convince as anything more than cheap and cheerful voyeuristic thrills.

Kozlowski the paedophile is a cross-dressing cartoon leering at his victims in an underground lair furnished like one of Thomas Harris' fever dreams. Craig and Elise lock horns in painfully obvious bouts of strawmanning - she loudly announcing she wants a gun on the stairs in the courthouse (!), sneering at him when he reminds her vigilante justice won't bring back their son.

Neither Metcalfe nor Christensen can sell the lead roles, though this is more the fault of the film's twitching moral compass than their shortcomings as actors. They put enough effort in presumably Lieberman told them The Tortured was meant to be saying something, but anyone would struggle to convey precisely what with a script so lacking in direction.

Both of them have their moments of revelling in Kozlowski's distress, so when each starts having second thoughts it comes far too late to provide an effective contrast to the splatter and seems more like painting both characters as petulant and clueless, rather than re-establishing their humanity.

The final twist is also spectacularly fumbled, a last-minute gotcha like something a twelve-year-old might come up with. It manages to be simultaneously simplistic and incomprehensible, as in the basic premise is insultingly straightforward yet the film supplies so little information to back it up it's more than possible to interpret it two completely different ways.

This should not be taken as a compliment - viewed as hard-line wish fulfilment the ending is borderline monstrous, viewed as a final 'What if' it's childishly framed contrition coming too little, too late. If it stuck to either a black or white world view it's doubtful The Tortured would ever be any good, but it would at least be far easier to swallow.

Gorehounds should get their quota out of the film if they're prepared to exercise a little patience, but The Tortured fails to say anything more nuanced than a hundred Lifetime movies before it when it is clearly trying to do just that. It's simply too confused and rambling to even be offensive, much less thought-provoking, and whatever you want out of The Tortured, there are far too many other better alternatives to even begin to recommend it.

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cuckooSeptember 1, 2010 8:18 AM

Um, I might be crazy but having your child abducted by a paedophile would probably be a left winger's worst nightmare as well. Being one I can say that. What's with the political reference in this review?

Ard VijnSeptember 1, 2010 9:20 AM

Well... he states "stereotypical right-wing American couple's worst nightmare". There is a difference.

I think having your child abducted by a paedophile is ANYONE's worst nightmare, at least anyone non-stereotypical.

It's just that if you think about a "stereotypical right-wing American couple's worst nightmare" versus a "stereotypical left-wing American couple's worst nightmare", with the former you tend to think about an evil outsider invading your home and destroying something you love, while with the latter you'd be inclined to think more about a serious rights infringement or something.

cuckooSeptember 1, 2010 9:48 AM

Hm. I guess I just didn't realize "paedophile abductions" were high on the worry list of right-wingers. Here in America, a *stereotypical* right wingers worst nightmare would most likely be an illegal alien taking their job, or the government taking their guns or not being able to find FOX News on their cable.

Matthew LeeSeptember 1, 2010 11:42 AM

It was hard to articulate, and I didn't want to turn the review into a political rant, but the film really does play out like a Fox News (or Daily Mail, for the British) take on the subject. The conversation in the courthouse is laughably transparent, with him going through all the stereotypical pinko liberal responses and her shooting them down one by one - perhaps Lieberman intended it to carry some kind of deeper meaning, but I wouldn't say it achieves any such thing.

The film is pitched at precisely the kind of hysterical, reactionary level of commentary on the subject (paedophiles, vigilante justice) that Chris Morris' infamous Brass Eye special intended to mock, and it's just in my limited experience that kind of hysteria tends to come more from very conservative, right-wing sources. I think you're right in that it probably isn't really as current a fear any more, so my apologies for any confusion, but I would stick by my assertions all the same.

Ard VijnSeptember 1, 2010 1:25 PM

"...not being able to find FOX News on their cable."

LOL brilliant. I actually spilled coffee!