A Powerful Story of Grace
Christian Movie Review
The new film Captive, starring David Oyelowo and Kate Mara, will be released in theaters Friday, Sept. 18. However, you can see it early at the special “Night of Purpose” event playing in select theaters Thursday, Sept. 17. Click here for more information. For group sales for your church, click here.
God is doing some interesting things in our culture right now. As a quick example, a new faith-themed movie that just came out — “90 Minutes in Heaven” — has the verse Romans 12:12 that appears on-screen before the movie starts: “be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, and faithful in prayer.”
The movie featured in this review — “Captive” — also has a verse from Romans appear on-screen before the movie starts: “where sin abounded, grace abounded more…” (Rom. 5:20).
That, quite frankly, is amazing.
Two movies being released back-to-back, and both prominently feature verses from Romans before the movies begin. And the first of these two movies releases today, the 14th anniversary of 9/11. Personally, I believe God is using these movies to send a message of grace to America. He is reminding us that “where sin abounds, grace abounds more,” and He is exhorting us to “be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, and faithful in prayer.” (And I actually wrote a much more detailed blog post about this whole coincidence here.)
God is on the move in America right now. And we need it more than ever.
Let’s dive into the movie “Captive” and explore how it so powerfully communicates the verse: “where sin abounded, graced abounded more.”
“Captive,” based on the book by Ashley Smith, tells the true story of Ashley Smith and an escaped prisoner, Brian Nichols, who took her hostage in 2005 — a news event that captivated the nation. Ashley Smith, at the time, was a single mother who was battling drug addiction.
One night, as she is unpacking her belongings in her new apartment, a desperate man on the run who has just killed several people — including the judge assigned to his case — enters her apartment and takes her hostage.
What happens next, well, if you didn’t hear about what happened in the news, you just have to see it to believe what happens next. And even if you do know what happens, the movie’s virtuosic storytelling — a ruthlessly quiet, slow-burn tension-builder after its explosive exposition — is absolutely riveting.
It’s one of the best films of 2015 of any film genre and one of the best films about the redeeming grace of God that has ever been made.
David Oyelowo — who played Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Selma” and has starred in films like “The Butler” and “Interstellar” — as I learned, is a devout Christian and a producer on the film besides starring in the role of Brian Nichols. (Keep an eye out for my interview with him that will be published this Sunday, Sept. 13.) He and the very talented Kate Mara (“127 Hours,” “Iron Man 2,” “Shooter”), who plays Ashley Smith, both give heart-stopping performances.
More on all of that in a moment, but first…
Parental Guidance Content at a Glance for this PG-13 rated film…
Sexual Content/Nudity/Themes of Sexuality and Romance: No sex scenes or nudity. A man is seen with his shirt off while he showers (only seen from chest up), and characters discuss a rape that happened in the past, but nothing is shown. A man throws a woman on a bed, but he has no sexual intentions toward her and nothing happens.
Violence/Gore/Scary Content: A character, after pummeling a guard with his hands, shoots and kills three people. We see the victims shot point blank as the bullets knock them down, but there is no blood or gore. A man throws a woman against a wall and she hits her head on a mirror and breaks part of it.
Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: One of the main characters, Ashley Smith, was a struggling meth addict when the events of the film took place, so we see depictions of meth use and of her getting high. We see her smoking cigarettes as she tries to calm herself down and talk herself out of taking more meth. Brian is seen taking meth, and his behavior changes as we see him get high. However, none of these depictions of drug use are in a context that glorifies the practice.
(Review continues below)
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Entertainment Value and Film Craft
“Captive,” after it brings us through its explosive, action-packed introduction, glides smoothly into a perfectly paced slow-burn tension-builder that is subtle filmmaking at its best. It is sparse and nimble with its dialogue and uses richly layered visuals and the agile work of its virtuosic actors — who convey pages worth of emotions and thoughts in a few facial expressions — to tell the story.
David Oyelowo and Kate Mara — along with the screenwriters (Brian Bird, Reinhard Denke who is uncredited) and director (Jerry Jameson) — give us real human beings for ch
aracters, not stereotypical 2-D villains and victims. We see a complicated, unpredictable mash-up of good and bad in each character. And we see bits of ourselves in them; we relate to their brokenness and regret.
And when a movie’s film craft is clicking on all cylinders, as “Captive” does, you hardly notice the time passing. Your eyes are glued to the screen, and the movie could go for two hours and you wouldn’t notice. Thanks to its agile and confident showing-not-telling approach, “Captive” draws detailed portraits of its characters, tells a multi-faceted story, and does all of it with the kind of story symmetry and pacing that doesn’t waste a single moment.
When the thrilling and deeply inspiring film ends (yes, I had tears in my eyes by the end), I was surprised I had been sitting there for an hour and 37 minutes.
The time flew by.
Worldviews, Subtext, Symbolism, Themes of Redemption, Social Commentary, the Question of “Spiritual Edification,” Etc.
“Captive” is a profoundly moving portrait of the grace that God offers us through Jesus Christ — plain and simple. It’s one of the most moving, well-crafted depictions of God’s redemptive work in our lives that I’ve seen in any medium — movie, music, or literature — in a long time.
It does the thing that I wish the faith-based movie industry would master on a more consistent basis: it relies on techniques other than plainly stated exposition in the dialogue to tell the audience what is happening. It trusts the audience that it will pick up the subtle little clues and cues that come to us quietly, sometimes entirely through visual content without a word being uttered.
In other words, it shows us the Gospel — that we all are all broken and imperfect before God, and we all desperately need His grace — without having to tell it.
The film also does not shrink away from the heaviness of what actually happened. It doesn’t wave a magic wand and gloss over the story with some happily ever after mantra. It shows us the brutally tragic consequences of selfish, destructive decisions. We see the terrible tragedy of the people who lost their lives at the hands of a vengeful killer and the tragedy of a man whose decisions put him behind bars. (And the film actually pays tribute to the victims and shows their photographs at the end.) It shows us the heartache, chaos and misery that sin creates. Yet in the midst of that — right there in the neck-deep thick of a very convincing darkness — we see God’s heart: His relentless, tender, lovesick pursuit of every one of us, even when we are at our worst.
“Captive” also shows us two thoroughly broken human beings — Ashley Smith and Brian Nichols — with seemingly incurable wounds in their crushed, confused spirits; but, besides showing us a believable transformation in these characters, the movie avoids doing an “us vs. them” categorization.
In other words, the film doesn’t show us incomprehensible, unsympathetic characters who make us think, “Oh, I could never be like that.” It shows us the humanity in these characters — the very same seeds of longing, brokenness, imperfection, and fragile hope that we all harbor in our hearts — and it holds a mirror up to the audience. Even though it’s an unusual story and even though most people will never experience the circumstances that Ashley Smith endured, we can still see shadows of ourselves in Brian and Ashley, and we sense deep down that we also need God’s grace and redemption in our stories just as much as they did in their stories.
Conclusion: “Captive” Can Do No Wrong. Go See It. You Will Not Regret It.
Bottom-line: “Captive,” is, in my opinion, the textbook example of what an authentic, powerful faith-themed movie should be, in both film craft and spiritual content. It’s not heavy-handed or campy, yet it doesn’t compromise the depth, complicated nuance, and power of its redemptive message either. It was a deeply edifying and thought-provoking experience, and it reawakened my heart’s awareness of how desperately I need God’s grace, hope, and purpose in my life.
My prayer tonight: Thank You, Lord, for “Captive,” and, most of all, thank You for Your grace and love that You pour out so freely.
My rating for “Captive”: [usr 9] (See my notes below on the rating scale.)
[NOTE from the author of this article: If you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis or U2, please be sure to read my new blog Stabs of Joy, which explores 18 C.S. Lewis books and 13 U2 albums to answer one question: how do we really experience Christ’s joy — and not just talk about it — during seasons of sorrow and difficulty?]
Note about my rating system for the movie’s film craft and entertainment value:
1 star = one of the worst movies ever made (the stuff of bad movie legends), and it usually (not always) has below 10% on Rotten Tomatoes
2-3 stars = a mostly bad movie that has a handful of nice moments; it usually falls between 10-30% on Rotten Tomatoes
4-6 stars = a decent movie with some flaws, overall. Four stars mean its flaws outweigh the good. Five stars mean equal good, equal bad. Six stars mean it’s a fairly good movie, with some great moments even, that outweigh a few flaws. A 4-6 star rating usually means it falls between 30-59% on Rotten Tomatoes (but not always).
7-9 stars = a rare rating reserved only for the best movies of that year; and a film must have a Fresh Tomato rating (60% or higher) on Rotten Tomatoes to be given 7 stars or higher, with a few exceptions (if I strongly disagree with the critics).
10 stars = one of the best films of all time, right up there with the all-time greats (i.e. Casablanca, The African Queen, Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars Episode IV, Indiana Jones, etc.).
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