An awfully far cry from fallen angels in trench coats.
Michael is about a mild-mannered, middle-aged insurance broker who drives himself to work each day, does his job, and goes back home without causing any trouble. To the world at large, there’s not much about Michael worth writing home about, but that’s alright, ’cause Michael’s not hurting anyone anyway. But what the world at large doesn’t know is that Michael goes home every night to the 10-year-old boy he keeps in his basement. As their “relationship” continues, Michael does his very best to keep the boy under wraps, but as he climbs the corporate ladder and his boy starts to rebel, his life as a closet pederast becomes increasingly harder to manage.
There are a lot of folks who’ll read that last paragraph and wonder what kind of sick puppy would make a movie like this, let alone watch it? I can already hear the echoes of “What is wrong with some people?” as they take a second glance at that Verdict and vow never to return to this filthy, filthy blog. And I totally get it, how could you not? The universal truth of the matter is that any way you cut it, there’s no easy way to sell pedophiles. But by the same token, this movie’s not out to convince us that they’re the misunderstood antiheroes of society, and, unfortunately, this is more an instance of art imitating life instead of the other way around.
Once upon a time – a happier, more wholesome time – this story would have been hard to believe. But thanks to some of the more straight-up evil people that lurk in this batshit crazy world we live in, it’s now terribly easy to see this as less a work of fiction and more a re-telling of truth. Just look at individuals like Elizabeth Smart’s captors or, to an even more royally effed-up degree, Josef Fritzl: Worst Dad Ever. It’s all right there, and it’s not exactly news either. Not that their existence makes the pill any easier to swallow, but it’s hard to point the finger at Michael when there’s so much real-life material for inspiration. Authors have written best-sellers about it, musicians have written hit songs about it, and it was only a matter of time before a film makers gave it a go.
Now, most of the time when he hear about a movie or see how the first Act plays out, we’ve usually heard about and seen enough relatively similar movies to get an idea of how the next two Acts are going to play out. Such is life, but not so much with Michael. Maybe Michael gets caught, maybe he gets away with it, maybe the kid escapes, maybe he dies in the first half-hour. Who knows? One of the finer perks of being the first to tackle any subject in a given medium is that you’re working with a clean slate, allowing you to structure a plot in any way you please without all the hassle of people drawing comparisons. Not only does writer/director Markus Schleinzer take full advantage of this opportunity, but he does an eerily thorough job of taking into account all the worst-case scenarios that could occur if one were keeping a child in their basement.
With each new said scenario, not once was there time where I knew how it would play out. There’s just this vibe about it, this “anything goes” vibe that gets put into action the second you realize what Michael has in his basement and it doesn’t fade for the remainder of the film. For the first time in I don’t know how long, I had encountered a completely unpredictable script, something I haven’t really seen since the likes of Revanche. It was intense, it played on my emotions, and it was good. For someone who watches more movies than the legal limit, this is a truly rare sensation, but it’s also just part of the reason why everything works as well as it does.
At the forefront of it all is the relationship between Michael and the boy, a relationship that’s fascinating to behold as it keeps on evolving. When we’re introduced to them, the dynamic is very much that of a captor and his prisoner. Michael lets the boy out to eat, watch a little TV, and fulfill certain deplorable needs before sending him back to the basement. The boy submits, seemingly aware of how powerless he is to change his hopeless situation. Michael has it down to a science, and by that point, they’re just going through the motions. But ever so gradually, that all begins to change. Michael begins to shed his domineering facade, tries to foster some sense of normalcy out of their situation, tries to coax their dynamic towards that of a father figure and his adopted son. Let’s do chores together like a normal family, then after we can go for a stroll in the park, maybe even find you a little brother. The more he tries to form a connection and convinces himself that his actions are the furthest thing from monstrosity, the more the boy resists, maturing from a helpless victim into a caged animal.
Aside from the unpredictability of it all, it’s the ebb and flow of their “relationship” that really brings depth to a story that’s already rife with suspense. But make no mistake, Schleinzer isn’t out to make us sympathize with Michael, and he doesn’t paint him as anything other than what we already know him to be: unforgivable.
Although he doesn’t turn him into a caricature either – that soulless, boogeyman-like figure that immediately comes to mind when you hear about guys like him. What Michael is is human – the guy next door who waves to you on his way to work every morning. He’s a tortured soul, someone who’s clearly longing for something more out of the situation he’s created for himself and the boy, and it’s that ambiguity behind his motives as a kidnapper that makes him more than just cut-and-dry “evil.” Why Michael is who he is and does what he does is never clarified with a diagnosis, and that’s important, because who knows why some people do the things they do? If he were written any other way, he wouldn’t be real. We’ve all met Michael at some point in our lives, and that’s why he’s so damn terrifying.
And Schleinzer does such a great job telling this story. With the exception of a disco jam that plays twice in the last 15 minutes of the movie, the score is non-existent. Much like Michael’s approach to Kidnapping 101, Schleinzer’s is that of quiet calculation. His characters say only what needs to be said, the camera shows only what needs to be shown, and the end result is an exercise in the stunningly effective powers of restraint, a movie where every scene is as important as the last. It’s hardly explicit in terms of what we actually get to see, but it’s amazing how much more you can get out of a scene when the action is implied rather than broadcasted.
As for the cast, David Rachenberger is fantastic beyond his years as the boy; and Michael Fuith is also very good and very fitting as Michael. But for chrissakes, couldn’t they have given his character a different name? Like it wasn’t gonna be hard enough for him to shake that pedophile image the second people start walking out the theater. Poor Michael Fuith. Pray this doesn’t take off, man.
So, given the subject matter and the fact that there probably aren’t too many others who can back me up on all this ranting, it’s really weird to write about how good this movie is. On the one hand, I was as drawn into the subject matter in the same way I was drawn into the real-life instances that fed into Michael‘s creation. Those were some pretty big stories, and unless I’m fooling myself, I wasn’t the only one who was glued to the updates. On the other, how do you recommend this to someone without sounding certifiable in the process? Still not sure if I managed to walk that line without falling into a straitjacket. All I can really do is reiterate how incredibly well-executed and well-handled it is, and that it’s one of the more unnervingly compelling insights into the dark corners of the human condition that I’ve seen, corners that are still very much a mystery to all of us.
Definitely not for everyone, as I can already imagine the look on my grandmother’s face if I were to read that synopsis to her, but damn if it won’t stick with you.