Kate Mara and David Oyelowo in 'Captive'
Image: Paramount Pictures

Kate Mara and David Oyelowo in 'Captive'

I try to begin watching every movie with an open mind, but I was quietly pulling for Captive ever since I heard it was being released: it had great actors, a strong true story, and the potential to say something interesting about courage and even miracles.

Unfortunately, it’s a mess. I'm so disappointed.

I will start with what’s good: the performances are solid, leaving the savvy viewer wondering how on earth these people ended up in this film. David Oyelowo—an outspoken Christian whom we interviewed after his incredible, moving turn in Selma last year—stars as Brian Nichols, a convict who holds recovering addict Ashley Smith (House of Cards’ Kate Mara) hostage in her home after he escapes from jail and kills the judge who put him there. Also appearing is Michael K. Williams (whose had an indelible turn as Omar in The Wire) as the world’s most obvious cop, Detective John Chestnut—but more on that later.

This story also has the potential to be tensely thrilling—provided you don’t know the ending. But the film has widely been publicized with its ending, since it's based on Smith’s book about her experience. Maybe I should have expected this, but I didn’t hear about Smith’s ordeal—which was legitimately harrowing—as it was happening. I’ve talked to several Southerners since, and they tell me the story was followed by news all over the region. But just knowing that the film is based on Smith's book means that if you're paying any attention, you know how the story ends.

This very fact seems to be where the movie fell down. Screenwriter Brian Bird will be most familiar to CT audiences as a producer for Touched By An Angel, for which he wrote a number of episodes, as well as the screenplay for the well-regarded The Last Sin Eater. (Readers around my age may also be interested to know that he wrote an episode of Focus on the Family's McGee & Me!)

The problem with this screenplay, however, is not dissimilar to a problem that plagues a lot of movies based on true stories, whether they’re true crime or biopics. That problem is this: writers tend to conflate a situation and a story. That is, they figure that recounting a series of events is enough for a movie to be compelling. Get all the events in the right order, and what you’ve got here is a film. The recounting of events is basically a retelling of the situation—here is what happened, from start to finish.

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But if you’ve ever nodded off while listening to your friend recount their dream from last night, you know that a simple recounting of events doesn’t make for a good story. The real struggle for every writer of nonfiction—memoir, history, biography, and so on—is to locate the narrative arc inside that situation. Why do these events matter? What are their meaning for the reader?

The best way I know to explain this is through Bible stories. Do you note how we call them Bible stories? The Bible isn’t merely full of recountings of events; that would just be history. Instead, it’s full of narrative arcs that have meanings to them. And we teach them to kids that way.

The most situation-filled parts of the Bible—pure chronological recountings of facts—are the genealogies that appear periodically. Next time your pastor has to preach on a genealogy, listen to that sermon carefully. Is it just a listing of names? No: pastors instinctively try to locate the story in the genealogy. They make meaning from the listing of facts. You’re meant to walk away with not just knowledge, but something that can change your life, whether it’s an understanding of how God thinks of women or how God chooses the most downtrodden to be the exalted or whatever. The point is that genealogies tell stories in their events.

Captive, to my chagrin, never finds its story—that is, it never finds the meaning, the arc, the narrative that justifies its retelling.

Kate Mara and David Oyelowo in 'Captive'
Image: Paramount Pictures

Kate Mara and David Oyelowo in 'Captive'

The plot points are all there: boom, boom, boom. But what does it mean at the end? The movie will certainly be billed as an “inspirational” story—but, frankly, that's the bare minimum a movie can reach. What is it inspiring you to? In this case, I guess, courage in the face of undeniable hardship, like when a murderer who might be mentally unstable breaks into your house and holds you captive, and you want to talk him off a ledge.

Maybe there’s something to that. But it’s a relatively low bar. The everyday situations in which most of us need to exercise courage tend more toward being kind to people who aren't kind to us, or standing up for someone who can't do it themselves.

Presumably there’s an actual great story in here somewhere—maybe something about radical grace extended even to the lowest, or supernatural intervention, or even the power of empathy. The film tries to reach this by bringing in Rick Warren’s book The Purpose-Driven Life, a book that Smith receives at a meeting for addicts and then reads to Nichols in a montage scene that is, I don’t know, supposed to motivate him to a better life or something. (In the film, it doesn’t really work out that way—as with Unbroken, we have to rely on the text that appears after the story for the real kicker.)

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As I understand the true story, the book actually did play a part, so it’s not as if that plot point was plucked from mid-air.

But here is where the biggest problem with the film comes in. It’s being marketed—aggressively—to “faith-based” audiences, presumably because of the Purpose-Driven Life connection. (It's also got a big connection to Oprah, for what that's worth.) But the bits of the book that are actually read (which are, admittedly, not in context of the whole book) have virtually nothing in them that would offend anyone but the most militant atheist.

This is a repeated problem that more than just Christian critics are starting to note: faith-based films say they are intended for Christian audiences who wish to see their faith represented on screen. But over and over again, they tend to water down faith to its bare minimum, presumably for box office appeal. There is no call to radical sacrifice, no understanding that faith doesn’t guarantee a fairy-tale ending, few portrayals of suffering or sin that aren’t overcome or punished on-screen. Heaven is a place of peace for everyone; prayer fixes everything all the time; God’s not dead, but we won’t talk too much about Jesus’ unappetizing call to give up our rights for others. It hasn't always been this way. Faith on screen is being watered down.

In a film meant to proclaim the value of faith and grace, I find this offensive, but it's also blandly, vaguely permissible. The goal seems to preach an entertaining-enough sermon we can see in the theater. It tickles our ears, make us feel like reasonable and inoffensive people, who will then go out and be nice in the world and read The Purpose-Driven Life, I guess: Pretty much like every feel-good movie ever made, with a Christian bookstore purchase thrown in.

Is that what ought to demand from our movies?

Kate Mara in 'Captive'
Image: Paramount Pictures

Kate Mara in 'Captive'

One other note. The movie has Michael K. Williams as Detective John Chestnut, trying to solve the case and repeatedly reiterating plot points we already know—not surprising, actually, since TV often does this. But in film, which has the more flexible luxury of time, this is a mark of bad writing—the old axiom show, don’t tell always applies.

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That also means that as he investigates Nichols, he has to tell us, progressively, how not-good of a guy this convict really is. So we end up with some pretty corny dialogue, especially when talking about women associated with Nichols. “Is this the rape victim?” Chestnut asks his partner (played by Jessica Oyelowo, David’s wife). “No, it’s the one he had a baby with,” she says. “I can’t keep it straight with these women!” Chestnut says.

“This is a guy who didn’t like to be told ‘no,’” an expert on a TV broadcast says. Later, they call him a sociopath.

All of this, I imagine, is intended to show us how remarkable it is that a still-recovering addict like Smith could overpower him with her patience and her volume of The Purpose-Driven Life, but it still draws easy lines that downplay the family-destroying horror of drug addiction and the soul-murdering power of betrayal. What if we felt sympathy for the villain? What if we weren’t sure we wanted to sympathize with the heroine? What if a movie made us confront our easy stereotypes? What then?

I’m sorry that these actors ended up in this version of this movie; I believe in all of them, and have seen great, provocative performances from them. But Captive is a bust. It needed at least three more revisions before it was worthy of its considerable talent. All I can hope is that the promise of the epigraph, Romans 5:20—”where sin abounded, grace abounded even more”—even holds for movies.

Caveat Spectator

Captive is rated PG-13 for "mature thematic elements involving violence and substance abuse." It has the real ability to frighten young children, since Smith's life is threatened. But in general, all of these elements are truly "thematic," which is to say talked about but not portrayed on screen. There is a mention of infidelity.

Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today’s chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. She tweets @alissamarie.

Our Rating
1½ Stars - Weak
Average Rating
(21 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
Directed By
Jerry Jameson
Run Time
1 hour 37 minutes
Kate Mara, David Oyelowo, Mimi Rogers
Theatre Release
September 18, 2015 by Paramount Pictures
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