Hide and Seek (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Some day, there will be a trivia question asking which actress appeared in movies opposite Oscar winners Sean Penn, Denzel Washington, and Robert De Niro. The answer is Dakota Fanning, although the movie in which she co-stars with De Niro is not likely to be a career highlight. There's nothing wrong with Fanning's performance. In fact, it is by far the best thing about Hide and Seek. The rest of the movie stinks.

Generally speaking, I detest gimmicky films – productions that stand or fall based on whether the filmmakers can sucker an audience in to accepting a twist that upends everything. On isolated occasions, if handled cleverly, this approach can work. But there's nothing clever about how it is applied in Hide and Seek - a clumsy, illogical, and reprehensible motion picture. And, considering what the little girl played by Fanning has to endure for the twist to work, it's borderline sick. Movies about the psychological abuse of a child can be powerful when the subject matter is handled in a serious, sensitive manner. But when it is employed as a plot device to enable a surprise revelation, it becomes offensive. Hide and Seek is guilty of this infraction. And, because Fanning inhabits her character so fully, the film's callous exploitation of the psychological rape of this little girl is unpardonable.

The little girl in question is Emily Callaway, the 11-year old only daughter of psychologist David Callaway (De Niro). Following the suicide of David's wife (Amy Irving), the two have moved to a secluded upstate New York house in the hope that a fresh start will banish their troubles. But Emily has become sullen and withdrawn. She barely speaks and exhibits hostility towards her father's new female friend, Elizabeth (Elisabeth Shue). The only thing to give her any joy is an imaginary friend named "Charlie." But Charlie is a dark and unpleasant entity, and David finds ugly graffiti on his bathroom wall and a cat drowned in the tub. Despite dismissing the possibility that Charlie may be more than a subconscious manifestation of something shadowy in his daughter's psyche, he refuses to hospitalize her and instead hopes that everything will blow over. ("Just give me two more weeks…" he confides to a colleague.) But, when a murder happens, the truth about Charlie can no longer be ignored.

Aside from the film's inexcusable brutalization of Emily's character, there are plenty of things not to like about Hide and Seek. The first, and most obvious, is the ham-handedness of Ari Schlossberg's screenplay, which relies upon audience gullibility. There isn't a scintilla of logic or intelligence in the way this story unfolds. It's developed with minimum aptitude - there's not even the urge to shout "We've been had!" once the truth is known. In fact, the effort at misdirection is so sloppy that it's possible to guess the twist based on it. Viewed in retrospect, little of Hide and Seek holds up. Or, to phrase it another way, the movie doesn't "play fair." However, in order to absorb the idiocy of the screenplay, it is necessary to stay awake until the shell of an ending. This can be a chore, because director John Polson (the man in charge of the Fatal Attraction for teens rip-off, Swimfan) shows no understanding of pacing or suspense. The first hour of Hide and Seek is sleep inducing, with plenty of failed character development and no action or tension. Then, instead of placing the "reveal" close to the climax, he allows the film to drag on for fifteen minutes after the pivotal moment, encouraging audience restlessness.

One is almost tempted to state that Robert De Niro could learn something from Dakota Fanning, since she outacts him at every opportunity. I believed in Emily, but not in David. In the first place, the character acts too stupidly to accept. That's not De Niro's fault - the script forces David to do all sorts of moronic things - but the actor seems to be going through the motions. This, sadly, has been the case in many of De Niro's recent performances. David never attains more credibility than a marionette dancing on a filmmaker's strings. His actions, words, and personality are artificial.

Hide and Seek is being sold as a supernatural thriller, but the only unexplained phenomenon is how this movie succeeded in making it into theaters. It is a ghastly experience, and I left the theater feeling as if I had waded neck-deep through a stream of raw sewage.

Hide and Seek (United States, 2005)

Director: John Polson
Cast: Robert De Niro, Dakota Fanning, Famke Janssen, Elisabeth Shue, Amy Irving, Dylan Baker
Screenplay: Ari Schlossberg
Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski
Music: John Ottman
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 2005-01-28
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1