Anyone who believes that independent filmmaking fizzled after the Sundance/Miramax boom years of the '90s hasn't been paying attention to the rise in privately financed Christian features. Hollywood has noticed, though, and recent pictures like War Room and 90 Minutes in Heaven have jumped from the barnstorming circuit of church screenings and home viewings to the multiplexes, with a corresponding jump in production values as well. While that still doesn't guarantee that all moviegoers will be interested in watching faith-based films, the crime drama Captive might find a crossover audience -- especially since it's based on the strange-but-true story of Ashley Smith, the woman who was taken hostage by escaped convict Brian Nichols, and who convinced him to turn himself in after reading aloud to him from Pastor Rick Warren's Christian self-help book, The Purpose Driven Life.
Ashley Smith (Kate Mara) is fortunate to still have the book on hand, since she'd tossed it in the trash earlier that day after receiving it from a well-meaning member of her 12-step program. Smith is a meth addict teetering between sobriety and relapse, still showing up for work thin and pinched with greasy hair, still using while attending meetings, still hoping that decorating the spare bedroom in her new apartment will allow her to regain custody of her young daughter. She's too busy holding it together at her waitressing job to pay attention to the manhunt unfolding on the TV's around her, as convict Brian Nichols (David Oyelowo) flees after making an impulsive decision to brutally beat a courthouse guard, steal her gun, and murder the judge presiding over his trial. The movie intercuts between Smith and Nichols' paths that fateful day, until they converge in the parking lot of her apartment building at 2:00 a.m., when Smith steps out for a smoke and Nichols puts a gun to her back and forces himself into her apartment.
This is essentially a parlor drama between two strangers in uncomfortably close quarters, and both Mara and Oyelowo give sterling performances. Oyelowo's Nichols is not simply an animal or a gentleman killer, the two clichéd polarities of onscreen murderers. He is intelligent and brutal, but the most terrifying thing about him is his decisiveness, his complete lack of hesitation as he coolly moves from one felony to the next. Screenwriter Brian Bird, whose most prominent credit prior to this was his work on the decidedly non-naturalistic TV series Touched by an Angel, rises above falsely dramatic "moviespeak" dialogue and instead invests the scenes between Smith and Nichols with an economy of language that makes the threat feel genuine. (In addition, the early scenes of Smith's capture are so harrowing that survivors of violent crime might find this film too much to take.)
But while Oyelowo is no slouch, this is ultimately Mara's movie. Her performance is so real, so nuanced and sincere, that there isn't a single forced moment in Smith's arc from desperate victim to serene survivor. At one point, Nichols puts a gun to her head and demands she snort a line of meth for him. She would rather die than do this. How does an actor depict something as ineffable and internal as undergoing a spiritual awakening? Mara does it with only the darting of her eyes and the slowing of her breath, and it's an extraordinary moment that should be remembered come Oscar time.
Captive may be the rare faith-based movie of interest to nonbelievers, since it can be viewed solely as a psychological drama. It's certainly open to a humanist interpretation, examining how people threatened with a crisis dig deep into their best selves and choose nobility under duress. But this is ultimately a Christian film, and that presents a problem: By trying to appeal to all audiences, Captive is unable to choose between two conflicting world views. Is redemption found solely within ourselves? Or only through God? That isn't an argument that can be solved in 97 minutes, and the story instead sidesteps the whole debate with an ecumenical shrug (while gently resting its thumb on God's side of the scale). Whatever you believe about the nature of our own reality, a movie needs to establish the rules of its own game -- early, consistently, and indisputably. If the existence of God is as essential to Captive's reality as the Force is to Star Wars, then the filmmakers should commit to that, regardless of who may or may not buy a ticket as a result. Captive is as beautifully acted and technically sleek as any Hollywood movie, but a little more courage of (religious) conviction would put more calcium in its bones.