David Oyelowo, the picture of principled honor as Dr. Martin Luther King in “Selma,” delivers unmitigated evil as the murderer at the heart of “Captive.” He plays psychopath Brian Nichols, whose 2005 murder spree terrified Atlanta. As he did before, Oyelowo explores issues of suffering and spiritual salvation in mature, realistic terms. For a second time he has won over this impious viewer completely.
Both faith-based and fact-based, “Captive” is a one-two punch of a crime thriller. The Venn Diagram of Christian drama and edgy filmmaking that scares the bejeezus out of you and hasn’t had much overlap. Yet here it does, impressively. The film tries to be honest to Ashley Smith’s uplifting memoir, “Unlikely Angel,” the book on which it is based.
Once again the English star portrays a real-life American character whose background we don’t deeply explore because we don’t need to. Nichols is introduced as he is about to stand trial in Atlanta’s downtown courthouse on a rape charge. He beats the policewoman guarding him and seizes her pistol, fatally shooting the judge, a court reporter and a sheriff’s deputy. He flees in a series of stolen cars, then kills a federal agent in a far Atlanta neighborhood – the film has a good feel for the locales – to take his truck. Paranoid and vindictive, Nichols takes Ashley Smith prisoner in her own apartment as police hunt for him.
Oyelowo’s Nichols is an uncommunicative man whose decisions are hardly decisions at all; he appears to operate solely on impulse and adrenaline. Smith (played by Kate Mara) was no stranger to destructive impulsive choices either. A meth-addicted single mother, she faced a long recovery before she could regain custody of her young daughter. A sponsor from her addiction group gives her a copy of Rick Warren’s bestseller “The Purpose Driven Life,” which advises readers to “abandon your agenda and accept God’s agenda.” She immediately throws it in the trash.
Proving that the Lord works in mysterious ways, it returns to her in the mail. That book becomes a cornerstone of Smith’s harrowing imprisonment by Nichols. The tense hours the two spend together as he battles the “demon” inside his mind are the film’s spine. Smith stands up to him admirably. During what could be her last day alive, she uses passages from the book as scripture to exorcise the delusional Nichols.
Oyelowo and Mara convincingly play distinct characters from different worlds who consider each other distorted reflections. He wants to see his newborn son just as she hopes to reunite with her beloved girl. She feels a human connection to the killer holding her in captivity. Smith hopes to soothe him with compassion, even if it’s tranquilizing him with her crystal meth. There are solid passages with Michael K. Williams as the detective leading the police search team, but at its best the film is a sharp double act.
“Captive” is tense and complicated (but not overcomplicated). It dramatizes Nichols’ massacre with jaw-dropping intensity. Yet it follows the tragic story to paths of empathy, capping off the story with its near-miraculous – and true – conclusion. It takes tones that rarely coexist onscreen and marries them without compromising either. It’s a motivational Christian film that goes very light on preaching or evangelizing – closer to sharp entertainment than religious propaganda. That’s fairly miraculous in itself.
Cast: David Oyelowo, Kate Mara
Director: Jerry Jameson
Length: 100 minutes
Rating: PG-13 (mature thematic elements involving violence and substance abuse)