Review by James Land
In the pantheon of “faith-based” films, few stand out as having creative quality or entertainment to reach beyond a niche audience of the faithful. The recent spate of movies such as “Courageous,” “Fireproof,” and the more recent “God’s Not Dead” preach directly to an audience willing to accept each film’s message while ignoring the poor filmmaking involved in each of those projects. A few exceptions include “The Passion of the Christ,” “Unbroken,” and to a lesser extent “Captive,” starring David Oyelowo as murderous fugitive Brian Nichols and Kate Mara as Ashley Smith, the woman he held hostage for over 7 hours. Of course, this film is based on actual events and strives to stay true to those events as they happened. The end result is a solid, compelling character study which leaves a lot of questions hanging in the air when it’s over.
On one of the darkest days in Atlanta, Georgia’s recent history, Brian Nichols killed four people, including a judge, a court reporter, a bailiff, and a federal agent before kidnapping meth addict Ashley Smith and holding her hostage in her apartment. During her ordeal, Ashley reads from Rick Warren’s book ‘A Purpose Driven Life’ in an attempt to calm Nichols and reassure herself. “Captive” does little to explain the effect the book had on Nichols, but for Smith, its impact changed her forever. She has gone on to write her own book about her experience and advocates on behalf of her faith in Jesus Christ and the book that changed her life.
“Captive”‘s two primary stars give good performances, with Oyelowo standing out the most. He fills Nichols with as sense of confusion and barely contained rage demonstrating the evil overtaking him. When, at one point, he says, “I got a demon in me,” it rings true. Oyelowo pulls himself to a dark place to show how this young man with such a promising future became so riddled with evil thoughts he could no longer hold them at bay. As the story moves along, no matter how sympathetic Nichols may seem, when he talks of the son he never knew he had you never forget how dangerous he can be.
The movie focuses primarily on Smith, who’s lost both her husband and her daughter to drugs. One to death, the other to the foster care system. Fortunately, she has Aunt Kim (ably played by Mimi Rogers) living in town to take care of daughter Paige (Elle Graham). Smith’s addiction to Meth hounds her as it does most addicts. For her, though, this one night of terror, spending her time with a killer in Nichols saved her life. Mara is convincing as Smith, lending her an emotional purity even as she lies about her habit. She knows who she is, but doesn’t know how to change until she picks up Rick Warren’s book to mollify Nichols during their night together. Mara is much better an actress than the screenplay allows her to be. Smith remains unsure throughout the ordeal. While the emotions are present, there are no real weighty and memorable lines for her. So we’re left with a poor shell of a woman, instead of someone as strong as Smith must have been, whether she realizes it or not.
The rest of the cast was mediocre at best, with Michael Kenneth Williams being the one exception. His Detective Chestnut is smart, but frustrated by Nichols cold single-mindedness. Leonor Varela’s Sergeant Sandoval looks the part, but seems to have trouble with her lines. Even reporter Meredith MacKenzie (Jessica Owoyele, David’s wife) seems tentative and has a hard time being fluid with her lines. These lapses take away from some excellent performances by the film’s stars.
Director and long time TV veteran Jerry Jameson felt out of his element a bit. Where “Captive” had all the trappings of a star-studded studio film, it felt like a TV movie of the week. That’s not always bad. Over the years, Jameson has done excellent work in television, but this time it didn’t fully translate to film. His saving grace came in the form of this two lead actors and the chemistry they developed during some key scenes. He does an effective job creating tension in the middle third and last third of the film, which is commendable given the outcome is so well documented. I’ll also give him props for not allowing this story to become heavy handed or preachy. It never has the sense of a “faith-based” film. Sure, the overall message comes through as faith and hope, very encouraging ideas in a world that seems more and more to mock them but it plays pretty well as a crime story, one you might see on any cable channel as you’re surfing the dial in the evening.
Even with its flaws, “Captive” held my attention throughout its length. I know many will bash it and exaggerate its flaws because of its faith-based content. That’s a natural response to faith by those who don’t believe in it. I simply felt it exceeded my expectations because it didn’t take a tragic and horrific event and make it seem trite in order to make its point. The film makers rightfully paid tribute to Nichol’s victims, who were never lost or forgotten at any time during the story. Ultimately, though, I left the theater with a few unanswered questions left hanging when it was over.