On March 11, 2005 the Atlanta police locked the city down in a massive manhunt for Brian Nichols, an escaped convict who had bludgeoned his police escort, burst into the courtroom, murdered his judge and, before the day was over, gunned down three others.
Across town a meth addict widow, Ashley Smith, makes yet another promise to her recovery group and her daughter that she will show up clean. Hours later she holds a packet of crystal meth over the toilet…then rolls up a dollar bill and inhales it.
Of all the women Nichols could have captured that that day and forced to hide him, he chose Ashley. Of all the books Ashley could have been reading, the one on her kitchen table was Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life.
“Read it to me,” Brian orders. The words change both their lives.
In today’s highly cynical culture Ken Wales has mastered the art of producing a movie that offers hope and redemption without being overly sentimental. The producer of Amazing Grace, the story of British abolitionist William Wilberforce, and director Jerry Jameson bring the true story of that day to the screen.
Kate Mara (House of Cards) is a terrified but steely Ashley. David Oyelowo (Martin Luther King in Selma) plays a nuanced, almost sympathetic coiled-snake murderer.
“To play Dr. King was such an honor. To be in his headspace was so transformative,” Oyelowo told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “With Brian Nichols, you’re having to go to some dark places in your heart and mind.”
At one point in the movie, Brian, who was on trial for a brutal rape he swears he did not commit, tells Ashley, “I think I have a demon.”
Over the seven hours Brian holds Ashley hostage, they both battle their own demons. Both must decide if they will continue down their destructive paths. Both must decide if they love their children enough to give them something more than heartache and longing. Both must decide if God really might have a purpose for their torn-up lives.
Even if you remember the 2005 headlines, the terrific acting and pace of the movie keeps you gripping your popcorn bag. Both Mara and Oyelowo bring us into their character’s internal, “choose life or death” struggles with the subdued micro-expressions and vocal inflection of gifted actors. A skyward pleading look up segues to an all-seeing helicopter looking down on the manhunt below. Fine craft.
Three short passages from Warren’s book deliver the central message of the movie. The conversation is spare. Honest. “Could you forgive me?” “I don’t know. But God can.”
Ashley determines to see Brian through the eyes of Jesus. Serving him homemade pancakes. Asking him questions that invite him to count the cost of his choices.
“What do you think your purpose is?” Brian asks Ashley. The captive looks intently at her captor. “What do you think my purpose is?”
The characters do not preach. But like the book of Esther, the power of God flashes though key plot points and character decisions, continually moving the story toward its redemptive conclusion. Redemptive and surprising (unless you remember all the headlines), yet realistic.
In real life not every prayer is answered the way we hope. Not every story is tied up with a neat red bow. I’m not one to easily tear up at movies, but the tragedy and beauty God has written into the story of these two crashing, burning lives did it. We rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.
To spare the sermon and spotlight the story Ken, Jerry and team have delivered an extra message punch in creative ways. Don’t leave before the credits. And place the attractive card you receive with your ticket where others can read the quote from lead actor and co-producer Oyelowo: “The greatest blessing of following God’s purpose is a life that transcends your own, nourishing you and others more than you ever could have imagined.”
In theaters now. Don’t miss this movie. A great opportunity to support inspirational film-making at its best.
Captive” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned) for mature themes, violence and substance abuse.
Here is a good interview with David Oyelowo.