Captive (2020)

Captive has its European première at FrightFest

“I’m not mad,” Evan (William Kircher) reassures teen Lily (Tori Kostic) near the beginning of Captive, after she has apologised for spilling water on the floor of his isolated woodland home. The two have only just met. Lily is lost and confused, having run away from her drunken, bullying stepfather (David Lee Hess) and got separated in the woods from her boyfriend Neil (Jairus Carey) – and now that she has strayed into Evan’s domain looking for help, it quickly becomes clear that this solicitous, erratic middle-aged man is indeed, despite his denial, quite mad, and in more ways than one. For both short tempered and utterly unhinged, Evan is immediately certain that Lily is in fact his long lost daughter Katherine (Meghan Hanako), returned at last to the family home – and he will do anything to resume her strict regime of athletic training, even if it means making her a virtual prisoner in the house. 

Writer/director/producer Savvas Christou’s feature debut might start out resembling one of those girl-locked-in-the-basement scenarios that were popular at the height of the ‘torture porn‘ run, but the dynamics here are fundamentally different. Evan may be mercurial and unpredictable, but he is also genuinely loving, and despite his issues with anger and control (which he is always striving to temper), he has no intention of harming his ‘daughter’ in any way. Neither a sadist nor an abuser (sexual or otherwise), his only problem is his state of heightened delusion, as he assiduously maintains a fantasy of domestic stability where there is none, and genuinely believes that Lily is Katherine. Lily, herself well accustomed to handling a difficult stepfather, soon realises that her best chance of escape is to indulge Evan’s immutable fancies, and to play the loving daughter. 

As a sickly sense of Stockholm syndrome settles over the household, what ensues is a peculiar psychodrama of projection and transference, with lazy Lily becoming the fit, strong, helpful daughter she had never been, and with Evan learning to accommodate some of the changes in the long absent ‘Katherine’. The truth is that Katherine and Lily have much in common: both are adolescents who have lost their mothers, both have left home, and both were keen diarists. When Lily finds Katherine’s diary, she not only uses information inscribed in it to help her become a closer understudy to its author, but also starts adding her own entries to its pages. This is a process of partial assimilation – partial in the sense that Lily, unlike Katherine, actually begins to see Evan’s qualities as a stern if devoted father. 

As Lily and Evan keep play-acting the fictive parts that they have assumed and pushing one another’s limits, Captive captures that strange dynamic, affectionate yet asexual, caring yet cloying, between father and daughter, wherein it is not always so clearcut who is calling the shots and wearing the pants – in short who is the daddy in the relationship  – and who is there merely to comply and conform and obey instructions. The interplay between these two characters outlines both the trap – and the internal contradictions – of patriarchy, in a film whose cat-and-mouse tensions and power games take on an increasingly psychological dimension. Both Lily and Evan are driven by a deep sense of loss and lovelessness, and in their mutual rôle-play they find exactly what either one needs, while also offering an intense, concise parody of family relations. Here the nature/nurture debate gets a run for its money, as Evan’s madness, if not quite a blood legacy, at least proves catching.

strap: In Savvas Christou’s claustrophobic psychodrama, a fugitive daughter and a needy father are in training for their different, changing rôles

© Anton Bitel