Mark Reviews Movies

HIDE AND SEEK

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: John Polson

Cast: Robert De Niro, Dakota Fanning, Famke Janssen, Elisabeth Shue, Dylan Baker, Melissa Leo, Robert John Burke, Amy Irving

MPAA Rating: R (for frightening sequences and violence)

Running Time: 1:40

Release Date: 1/28/05


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Review by Mark Dujsik

There's a pretty effective if insignificant little thriller staring you right in the face during Hide and Seek, but all the while, it's slowly grabbing a rubber chicken off the table behind it, getting ready to suddenly stick the tired old gag in your face right when it has your attention. Whatever tension has been building up until that point—and there is some legitimate suspense built up here—instantaneously vanishes in the matter of a few seconds when the curtain falls and reveals what's actually been happening. The turn is a surprise and a shock: a surprise because in all honesty I didn't see it coming, and a shock because it's just silly. Up until that point, though, director Jon Polson handles the material with competency, taking some time to focus in on the effects a domestic tragedy has on a father and daughter. Working against him are screenwriter Ari Schlossberg's transparent setups for sequences of potential peril and John Ottman's obvious and heavy-handed generic thriller score, which puts us in the mindset of darker forces at work when there's little evidence to support it—beyond the fact that it's expected.

David (Robert De Niro) and Emily Callaway (Dakota Fanning) have just suffered a loss; their respective wife and mother Alison (Amy Irving) has committed suicide. The tragedy has left Emily isolated and quiet, not even opening up to her psychologist Katherine (Famke Janssen), and her father, a psychologist himself, believes that a change of scenery will help her the most. So against Katherine's advisement, David and Emily move from New York City to the small upstate town of Woodland, where neighbors are separated by menacing forests that contain dark, foreboding caves. One of the neighbors is Elizabeth (Elisabeth Shue), a divorcée who has moved in with her sister to rearrange her life. She and David hit it off, much to Emily's chagrin. Another neighbor Laura (Melissa Leo) is happy to have the company of another family in the neighborhood but worries that her husband Steven (Robert John Burke) might be paying too much attention to Emily because of the death of their young son. Emily slowly begins to open up, but it's in the form of an imaginary friend named "Charlie," who begins to torment David by vandalizing the bathroom late at night to remind him of his wife's death.

The immediate assumption is that "Charlie" is an outlet for Emily's suppressed feelings about her father and the passive role he played in allowing her mother to die. That facet of the story is handled nicely, and there are scenes here that support a domestic drama of a family dealing with tragedy. A dinner for David, Emily, and Elizabeth starts awkwardly (Emily arrives dressed in her deceased mother's jewelry) and ends downright creepily (Emily tells the graphic details of her mom's death and outright says she hopes her dad's new friend doesn't end up in the same situation). Meanwhile, knives are suspiciously out of place, and David finds Emily's beloved doll in the garbage with its face disfigured. Katherine thinks Emily needs to come back home; David wants to wait it out and see if she improves. For all of his stated concern for his daughter, David hardly spends a moment's time with her, tucking her in at night to discover the window he was unable to open is now open and that a flip animation in her diary explicitly details her mother's suicide. The rest of the time, he writes notes on her progress while listening to music on headphones with the volume loud enough not to hear someone calling in the next room.

These are conventions that need to be present for material like this to make sense, even if they point to concerns of logic. Similarly, it has become a given that there will be a cat that hides in dark spaces to jump out at the hero and give him a scare. Thankfully, there's no music underscoring the regurgitated moment, but that cannot be said of the rest of the movie. Musical cues signaling foreboding are just as obligatory as the cat, but the movie overindulges on these too early when nothing with which we're presented actually points to anything menacing in the shadows. Eventually, the shadows grow, and "Charlie's" behavior becomes more threatening and motivated. Polson's patience with the material and its central question pays off in one sequence where everything seems to point in one direction only to turn at the last minute and send everything spiraling out of control. The question, of course, is, who or what is "Charlie"—a ghost, the psyche of a tortured young girl, or some more tangible being lurking outside? The answer, as is typical in setups like this, is far less intriguing than the question.

In fact, the climax sets up huge, gaping holes in logic and, arguably a worse move, violates the established attitudes and actions of certain characters and its own logic. By the time "Charlie's" true nature is revealed, the proceedings turn almost farcical as character after character basically line up to become the next victim. As if that weren't frustrating enough, the last shot of Hide and Seek pulls one more illogical trick out of its hat, and our patience for the movie's insistence on toying with us has run out.

Copyright © 2005 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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