Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Hide and Seek

Posted by CinemaPsycho on February 28, 2005

Directed by John Polson/Screenplay by Ari Schlossberg/starring Robert De Niro, Dakota Fanning, Famke Janssen, Elisabeth Shue, Amy Irving/20th Century Fox

A troubled little girl’s “imaginary friend” concerns her psychiatrist father when they move to a small town after the death of her mother.

Hide and Seek is one of those movies that seems destined to get little or no respect from the critical community. It was released at a time when most of the attention is being given to “important” films that are vying for Oscar consideration, and this kind of slick, polished commercial thriller is bound to be overlooked by the so-called cultural elite.

It’s true, Hide and Seek may not be the most “important” film out in theaters right now. It’s certainly not the best film in theaters at this time. But sometimes you’re just not looking for deadly serious material like African genocide, fatal diseases or assassination attempts on former presidents. Sometimes you just want an entertaining movie, a good yarn that’s well told with class and style. In those instances adjectives like “slick” and “polished” are not derogatory but necessary qualifications. If you just want a decent, old-fashioned suspense flick, Hide and Seek fits the bill.

The plot summary above pretty much tells you as much as you need to know, without revealing the major plot twist of course. I think some people will figure out the twist ahead of time – I kinda predicted it myself just before it was revealed. Good for us. The important thing is that the story makes sense even after it ventures into Shyamalan territory, and actually becomes more disturbing and intense, as well as deeply felt. I’m a little tired of the whole “don’t spoil the secret” thing by now, as most movies don’t do it that well and people have become conditioned to try to figure it out ahead of time rather than enjoy the storytelling as a whole. As an audience member, I prefer NOT to know what’s coming or try to predict the ending. I’d rather not spend the entire running time of a movie attempting to outsmart the filmmakers. But that’s just me.

The point is, Hide and Seek does it well. Not that it’s an incredible shocker, although it’s a pretty good one. What’s important is that it’s kept well hidden until just the right time. Director Polson (taking a big step up from his previous film, Swimfan) and screenwriter Schlossberg skillfully show us just enough to make us think we’re seeing one thing when we’re actually seeing another. As they gradually reveal more and more information, we realize that we’ve only seen one character’s limited point of view, and the truth is much more complicated and painful than we previously imagined. The result may seem like a mere “gimmick” to some, but you can’t say that the movie doesn’t play fair. Of course, these kind of psychological mind-game movies aren’t really supposed to. But lately, too many of these twist endings feel like a manipulative cheat. Not so here.

This effect is greatly helped by the well-chosen cast. A lot of people have slagged De Niro for making movies like this, but I think that’s shortsighted. Every movie the guy makes isn’t going to be another Raging Bull or Taxi Driver – great roles like those are rare for any actor to come by. He’s entered a different career phase now, and while it may be disheartening to see him in lame comedies, a lot of actors his age find it difficult to find work at all, much less in lead roles. Leaving that kind of criticism behind for the time being, I think he’s really good here. Given his history of playing angry, repressed, violent “cavemen”, it’s fascinating to watch him as a very intelligent, articulate, cultured man who happens to be a caring and concerned father. It’s a surprisingly complex performance, and he pulls it off completely. De Niro’s one of those actors who’s been so good for so long that he’s taken for granted, but I have to say I was reminded of just how good he can be in roles you wouldn’t expect him to excel in. Whatever their opinion of his current career, I think his fans will really miss out if they skip this one.

Equally good is the ubiquitous wunderkind Dakota Fanning as his spooky, traumatized daughter. It’s dead-on perfect casting because, let’s be honest, there’s something vaguely creepy about the kid in the first place. She often seems like an adult in the body of a 10-year-old, so it’s a wonder she hasn’t been cast in something like this before. (If they decide to remake The Omen in the next couple of years, I fully expect her to play Damien.) But what’s great about her performance here is the way it subverts that expectation. Yes, we expect her to excel at being weird and creepy, and she does. But her character’s behavior is completely that of a child, disturbed and misguided as her motivations may be. It takes a subtle actor to play natural immaturity so believably, and Fanning is pretty remarkable.

There’s a lot of fine work in the supporting cast as well. Famke Janssen, Amy Irving, Dylan Baker, Melissa Leo, Robert John Burke – they’re all sharp and well-defined, even in seemingly minor roles. I really liked Elisabeth (“wow, she’s STILL gorgeous”) Shue as the sympathetic divorcee who tries to befriend the splintered family. She’s a hugely underrated actress, and it’s nice to see her back on the big screen again. It’s been far too long.

Ultimately, Hide and Seek is not a movie that’s going to set the world on fire. It won’t be up for any awards next year, and it probably won’t make any Top-10 lists. But it does exactly what it sets out to do, and I think it’s important to recognize that. It’s a good, solid psychological thriller with well-drawn performances and atmosphere to burn. If that’s the kind of movie you’re looking for, you could do a lot worse. Even if it’s not appreciated during its theatrical run, I think people will eventually discover it on video or cable, and say, “hey, that was actually pretty good.” It’s that kind of movie. Which is not a bad thing to be in my book.

*** 2/8/05

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