Ten years ago, Ashley Smith was held hostage in her Atlanta, Georgia apartment by Brian Nichols—an escaped convict who had just shot and killed four people.
She was a struggling meth addict and widow, who had lost custody of her daughter due to her drug addiction. When Nichols showed up at her apartment, they found they had more in common than one might think: Nichols had just recently found out he had a son—one he feared he would never meet. At one point in the evening, Nichols asked Smith if she had any drugs. When she admitted she had crystal meth, he asked for some. Though he demanded she also take some, she refused. In that moment, she knew she wouldn’t take the drug again.
She began to read excerpts from The Purpose Driven Life to him. They talked about God and forgiveness. By the end of the seven hours, Nichols let Smith go—and decided to turn himself in.
It’s an amazing story, and a very Christian one in many respects. Few are probably surprised that a movie (“Captive“) based on the story is being released this weekend.
But many do seem to be surprised that, despite its ethical content, the film is nuanced, poignant, and well-acted. It stars Kate Mara and David Oyelowo, two Hollywood stars at the top of their game. The tension stays high throughout the film, and the script does a good job avoiding corny or fake moments.
And sadly, when many people think “faith-based film,” that’s what they expect. The Atlantic‘s Emma Green uses the terms “religious flops” and “Christian spin” to describe your average faith-based film. Oyelowo admits that they’re often “substandard” and “heavy-handed.”
The problem usually lies in form: most “faith-based films” are ones that tell (or rather, cram the moral argument down the audience’s throats) instead of showing. Of course, some of the forced feeling may come from inexperienced or mediocre acting; it does help to have fantastic actors and actresses like Mara and Oyelowo, who communicate best through unspoken moments, and have a fantastic ability to keep dialogue appropriately tense and meaningful. But even more so, it seems that many Christian films struggle with the fear that subtlety will prevent their message from being heard—or will prevent them from being appropriately “Christian.”
Oyelowo and the film’s screenwriter, Brian Bird, seem to have the opposite attitude. Bird told Green, “I don’t think evangelistic filmmaking is either good evangelism or good filmmaking. I think it’s actually pretty bad propaganda most of the time.”
“If the film only appeals to Christians, then to me, personally, the film has failed,” Oyelowo said. “I’m not interested in a film that suffers from myopia because it only appeals to a certain subset of society.”
It seems certain that Oyelowo’s performance will not let that happen. His portrayal of Nichols is subtle, complex, and thoughtful. It takes in the whole character of a person, his hurts and anguish and sins—rather than portraying a stereotypical villain. “I’m a big believer that the light shines brightest in the darkness, so you’ve got to be truthful about the darkness for the light to really shine through,” Oyelowo said in an interview.
As Green puts it,
There’s one scene at the end, when David Oyelowo’s character is emerging, hands up, from the apartment where he had taken Kate Mara’s character hostage. He locks eyes with her from across a police line, and in that moment, there’s unmistakable ambivalence. She recognizes that he has committed heinous acts, but he’s also human; she sees that he’s a sinner, just as she has been. This is the fundamental tension at the heart of Christianity, and of many religions: Humans are flawed, but there is also a possibility of redemption. It’s true that only incredible actors could pull off a look full of that much meaning, but it’s telling that this moment was captured in body language, rather than a preachy script. This is the fundamental difference between Captive and most faith-based films: It’s steeped in Christian themes, instead of being about Christianity.
Mara shines throughout the film, as well. She manages to seem vulnerable, lost, irritable at times—she conveys deep love for her daughter, terror at her imprisonment, growing compassion for her captor. The role must have been a hard one, but she conveys Smith’s character and struggle with great skill.
Sometimes it seems tough to tell true stories well. Especially, perhaps, when those stories have a religious component. But “Captive” illustrates what such storytelling can be, when done well. It has its slow moments; supporting actors and actresses are good, but don’t deliver as powerfully as the film’s two stars. Nevertheless, the film succeeds in relating a good and worthwhile story, without doctoring, sugar-coating, or sensationalizing it. And that’s something both Christian and non-Christian films could do better.