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In one recurring dream I’ve had since childhood, I’m riding a bicycle and suddenly find myself going downhill. I pick up speed, then discover that the brakes on the bike aren’t working. The road becomes slick, and obstacles start appearing from every direction. If I stop, I know I’ll crash or fall off the bike. I have no choice but to keep moving, lest something very bad will happen to me. I always wake up just before I hit something.
The Halle Berry thriller Kidnap, which opened last Friday, does a good job at approximating the anxiety I feel during this dream. It’s a pared-down film, and the lack of adornment adds to the overall dreamlike quality. Like a hot rod stripped of parts to increase its speed, Kidnap lacks virtually any dramatic qualities that aren’t required to keep the suspense going. The movie contains little characterization, exposition, or dramatic variation.
For most of its running time, Kidnap follows a desperate mother chasing down the couple that abducted her child. On the chase Berry exhibits spectacular driving skills and superhuman strength; her heroics are implausible, yet I didn’t question the story’s plausibility because I was too wrapped up in what was going on.
Kidnap is the sort of unpretentious genre filmmaking that rarely gets a fair rap—it may not be ambitious, but it achieves what it sets out to do while committing few errors in its execution. The film compensates its lack of subtext with a certain free-associative generosity. Because Kidnap is so unadorned, so fleet in its construction, it encourages the viewer to flesh out the scenario with his or her own memories and fears. (I saw my dream in the movie, but I presume that other viewers will see other things.) Kidnap works on one of the most basic fears—being separated from the person you love most—and spins out complications to keep the heroine (and, by extension, the audience) from overcoming it.
Kidnap makes effective use of Louisiana’s expressways and interstates in creating its elemental suspense. The characters barely stop driving, and one sometimes gets the impression (as in Monte Hellman’s classic Two-Lane Blacktop) that the roads will simply go on forever. The roads make the human subjects seem anonymous. Berry and the kidnappers have no past or future when they’re caught up in the chase—their roles as pursuer and pursued usurp their humanity. This dynamic plays on the promise of freedom that’s long been associated with the open road, turning that dream of freedom into a nightmare of isolation. (It also inverts a common horror-movie scenario in which the protagonist must flee indefinitely from a murderous assailant.) When Berry does stop to ask for help from the police, her efforts prove useless. Circumstances force her to continue on her own.
Berry shoulders her underwritten part agreeably, drawing on her star power to make the character sympathetic. The film establishes in the opening scenes that the character is a divorced mother who may lose custody of her boy. This detail (which is virtually all the movie divulges about her) makes her appear like an underdog, the chase providing an opportunity to prove herself as a worthy parent to anyone who questions her ability to protect her son. Kidnap taps into another common (though less-dire) fear that many parents experience: that the world sees them as unworthy in their parenting skills. For some, Kidnap may play as an extended metaphor about having to prove oneself as a parent in the eyes of the world.
By coincidence, I attended my second screening of Kidnap the day after I saw the Italian thriller Kidnapped (1974/2002) at the Gene Siskel Film Center’s Mario Bava retrospective. The films have much in common, besides their similar titles. Both take place primarily on the road during relatively short periods of time, and both are deliberately lacking in characterization. In Bava’s movie, a group of criminals take a young woman hostage after a botched robbery; they then carjack a man who’s driving his son to the hospital and force him to drive the group out of town. Kidnapped is a spectacularly nasty work, with the robbers taunting and humiliating their captives in most unpleasant ways. It’s a reminder that Italian genre films of the 1970s can really pour on the cruelty, making their American counterparts seem tame by comparison.
Kidnap is fairly clean in its suspense—the filmmakers show the kidnappers threatening Berry’s son only once, and the action is generally bloodless. I preferred Kidnap‘s tidiness to Bava’s elaborate meanness—it fit the pared-down storytelling, heightening the dreamlike quality I admire.