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Halle Berry is a good actor. Her Academy Award for her raw, emotionally open performance in Monster’s Ball was well-deserved.
Halle Berry has movie-star charisma. It’s not just world-class beauty; at her best, she combines playfulness and gravity in a way that makes her fun to watch as an action hero (as in Die Another Day), a romantic foil (as in Bulworth), or as a nurturing type (as in X2, containing her best turn as Storm, of the X-Men).
So how is it that Halle Berry is seemingly incapable of starring in a good, genre-y thriller? Some of it, yes, must be the lack of high-quality roles afforded black women in Hollywood – even for a near-universally known Oscar-winning woman with plenty of hits to her name, including the genre-thriller The Call. But Berry seems particularly ill-fated in her late-career star vehicles, from an actual minor hit like The Call to a barely-released obscurity like Dark Tide. Before even getting to her performances, she has a bizarre knack for picking projects that were almost certainly not designed to be the D-movie equivalent of another, better thriller, but inevitably come off that way anyway: The 911-operator drama The Call is sort of a seedier, less taut variation on the 2004 thriller Cellular, while Dark Tide predates Blake Lively’s The Shallows and also provides roughly one percent of that movie’s shark-related thrills.
Kidnap, the latest Berry vehicle, indicates an abiding interest in this kind of stripped-down B-movie – the kind of thing that, like The Shallows, should serve as a tonic during the overblown summer months (or, if it’s really good, a Hitchcock throwback). Berry plays Karla Dyson, a divorced mother trying to make ends meet for her sweet six-year-old. After her shift as a diner waitress, she takes her kid to either the park, or a fair – the movie says the latter and indicates as much with poorly CGI’d overhead shots of a Ferris wheel, but the actual scenes seem to take place on a playground adjacent to a parking lot. Wherever they go, they aren’t there for long, because when Karla takes a call from her ex (threatening to take custody, natch), she leaves the boy alone for a moment and he gets abducted. Issuing the first of many howling screams of rage, Karla sprints after the car speeding away with her kid inside. When she is unable to physically drag that car to a halt, she hops in her minivan and heads into hot pursuit.
This premise is pure exploitation – or rather, it aspires to pure exploitation. Pure exploitation would be welcome in place of Kidnap, which is too vastly stupid to even exploit properly. The movie jams on the righteous-mom button so incessantly and insistently that Berry looks ready to short circuit. She’s clearly attempting to tap into a parent’s primal fear, and of course most parents would not respond coolly or calmly to witnessing the abduction of their child. But Kidnap makes Berry perform, in essence, 10 minutes of awkwardly written exposition followed by an 80-minute scream, as Karla frantically endangers the lives of as many people as possible, up to and including her son, by instigating this mad chase.
Director Luis Prieto operates under the impression that he is making a pedal-to-the-metal nailbiter, creating all of the noise and signifiers of a car going fast while actually depicting speed as infrequently as possible. There are multiple shots of Berry’s Conversed foot hitting the gas pedal, innumerable overhead shots of the cars on the move, and, most hilariously, multiple shots (or the same shot, multiple times) of a speedometer revving from about 40 miles per hour to about 60 miles per hour. Tires screech, Berry screeches, cars smash together, and the movie starts to feel like it’s getting off on its star’s goosed-up hysteria. (It’s certainly not getting off on actual speed; despite all of those cuts and a brief running time, storywise it’s mostly a putter in a circle.)
Look, the idea of a regular person fighting their way through extraordinary (and pulpy) circumstances is a juicy one – I’d love to see a mom-revenge movie directed by Jeremy Saulnier, who put regular-acting folks through the wringer in both Blue Ruin and Green Room. But Kidnap pitches deeply stupid behavior as a mother’s wrath, as in a spectacular negotiation scene wherein Karla is able to momentarily confront her sons’ captors (who seem confused and angry that she has chosen to pursue his abduction), and shrewdly throws them her entire wallet without prompting while yelling out her PIN. This follows a scene where the kidnappers indicate, by menacingly wielding a knife outside of a car window, that she must stop following them. Frightened for her son’s safety, she takes the next exit, then swerving back onto the highway and continuing to follow the car at a conspicuously close distance.
At best, this all looks incredibly cheap. At worst, Prieto and his editor Avi Youabian (who also cut The Call!) seem unsure about what they’re looking at, and convey that confusion to the audience, like in a simple scene where Berry and her son have a conversation in their minivan. Prieto shoots and cuts it to look, somehow, like Berry is literally talking to herself. This matches the subverbal tone of the screenplay, which features several scenes that show only half of a phone call, and struggle to make sense of what the person on the other end could possibly be saying. (These moments, though brief, very much play like the filmmakers concluded that if the audience can’t hear what’s being said on the other end of the phone, no one making the movie should know, either.)
It would be hard for any actor to perform well in these circumstances; yes, Kidnap is a movie where the screenplay is best described as “these circumstances.” At one point, Berry must perform a monologue to God, asking him not for the safe return of her son, but for the ability to spot the kidnappers’ car in traffic. In another scene, she briefly pauses her relentless hunt to talk to an actual cop, instead of screaming incoherently at bystanders to call 911. When the rest of the police force make the mistake of not instantaneously materializing around her and ask her to wait for a moment, Karla’s eyes frantically scan the MISSING posters adorning the station wall. All of those parents waited, she says to herself, and bolts (she decides it’s more expedient to drive around aimlessly looking for clues). I was thinking, lady, come on. How do you know those parents all waited? Maybe some of them killed the kids themselves. Maybe some of them died tragically in a minivan crash while hurtling down the highway at speeds between 40 and 60 miles per hour. Right away is not enough for Karla; later, a 911 operator gives her an ETA of 15 minutes, which she agitatedly deems too long. I guess streaming video really has spoiled a nation. I could go on, so suffice to say that most of Berry’s performance involves looking as if she just woke up in the middle of surgery, or on a rollercoaster.
Could anyone have saved this material? Maybe not; maybe Nicolas Cage, although his give-me-back-my-kid mode tends to be haunted and sullen, rather than peaking manic. Even so, it may be worth exploring why I would celebrate Cage’s hypothetical outbursts, while Berry’s feel so embarrassing. I think it’s their performing style: Berry has a natural strength and poise that these thrillers can’t resist prodding and poking and mussing into a kind of plain-folks invincibility. She’s not unhinged enough to turn a movie like Kidnap (or The Call, or Dark Tide) into performance art. Usually playing ridiculous material straight and sincere is an asset, but for a movie as craven and inept as this one, it amounts to an overemphatic endorsement of its shameless preying upon parental fears. Plenty of actors do movies that seem beneath them; Kidnap winds up grimy enough to get under its star’s fingernails. It ends with a collage of unconvincing news voiceover explaining that this mom has uncovered a multi-state childnapping ring and is, in the movie’s actual words, a real hero. The movie seems unaware that Halle Berry is a movie star, or a good actor – that she doesn’t need some dipshit thriller to clumsily spell out why we’re supposed to like her.