If you judged Miguel Ángel Vivas' home invasion thriller Kidnapped on the first five minutes, it would feel like one of the best things released this year. The opening sequence is a shattering jolt of adrenalin, a beautifully timed jump scare leading into a breathless setup that seems to promise the viewer a breakneck ninety minutes.
Then it all goes to hell, and not in a good sense, as Kidnapped devolves into one of the most bitterly disappointing films of 2010. Technically excellent, with a solid cast giving the material more effort than it deserves, it's still a savage, mean-spirited, unpleasant little production that seems to revel in vindictive, thuggish nihilism for its own sake. It's hard to see how anyone could get much fulfilment out of it.
A gang terrorise a wealthy suburban family, forcing them to hand over their valuables on pain of humilation, injury or worse, but things don't go as smoothly as the robbers hoped for. What the film doesn't make explicit - which feels like a serious error in judgement - is the intro exists to set up not the victims, but the criminals. It feels like an early reveal of what the relative calm of the first act is leading up to, but it's actually just informing us there are some desperate men out there who do really bad things to people.
We meet the new family (we never hear from the first one again) - mother, father and teenage daughter - as they move into their brand new home. Then the gang turn up, chaos ensues, and the family's comfortable existence is torn apart. There's exposition, obviously, plot threads for the three of them with the daughter set to go out to a party, the mother anxious to have a family dinner together on their first night at a new address and the father rolling his eyes at being asked to play the mediator. But it's clearly only cursory scene-setting that's been built up solely so Vivas can knock it down again.
It's a difficult thing to criticise in some ways because attacking a film for being too excessive runs the risk of being overly prudish or corrective. But it's hard to see anything in Kidnapped beyond the lure of getting a seedy, vicarious thrill out of seeing terrified people pushed to extremes. There's a definite attraction in seeing how far beyond the pale any director can go, and there are countless horror films which revolve around the slow realisation the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train, so to speak.
But even the cheapest throwaway B-movie is typically trying to do something beyond clubbing the audience into submission, yet Vivas and his crew don't seem particularly interested in anything bar clumsy shock tactics and violent death. It should be restated Kidnapped is technically difficult to fault - it's a startlingly polished film, from Pedro J Marquez' intimate, handheld camerawork and shimmering golden colour palette to Sergio Moure's unsettling, discordant soundtrack. The cast throw themselves into the script, from the mundane family bickering early on to the later horror and degradation.
Yet nothing makes an impression beyond the nastiness. The technical excellence doesn't prove compelling in and of itself given the fairly limited locations (it's a while before we even move out of the house). We're never told anything about the family that makes them seem particularly interesting, or even that believably human, beyond the basics. On top of that, the intro still proves a distraction, constantly prompting us to ask when's the screaming going to start? When does anything happen?
On the one hand, should the film have a point? Again, it feels potentially wrong to insist there should be some kind of moral component, but the thing is the violence doesn't seem to offer any kind of reward. The family are so poorly fleshed out there's little incentive either to cheer them on or hope they all meet horrible ends, and the villains grow ever more cartoonish as the film progresses. Their ethnicity seems as pointlessly exploitative (oh, God, angry foreigners!) as the crazy one going steadily off the rails, coked-up, leering and howling with rage. If Kidnapped is meant to be remotely serious, how did their gang not implode spectacularly long ago?
There's other, equally accomplished films that do far more interesting things both with splatter, social commentary or pure anarchy. Kidnapped ultimately just feels pointless; slick, but pointless, smirking at its protagonists as if they were insects struggling at the end of a pin, then saving one last smug 'Aha!' for the last thirty seconds, laughing at the audience for trying to make any sense of it all. Beautifully put together, but still dull, vacant and borderline offensive it's impossible to recommend.
(Kidnapped was screened as part of the 24th Leeds International Film Festival.)