Hide and Seek desires to be a spooky cinematic riff on the popular children's pastime, but John Polson's film has the feel of another game, and it's one where we, the audience, get played. A flashy ad campaign and an A-list star may lure movie-goers, but that's just a fresh shill for a very stale product. Based on a script from first-time screenwriter Ari Schlossberg, the film is a checklist of elements compiled from once-edgy, now-dusty thrillers combined with a strenuously inept narrative.
Nine-year-old Emily (Dakota Fanning) adores her mother (Amy Irving), who in the film's opening sequence delights her daughter by indulging in a bedtime game of hide-and-seek. No sooner are the lights out in this charming Central Park West apartment when little Emily and her dad find mom floating dead in a bath of her own blood.
Predictably, Emily goes off the deep end, movie-style, where all she does is stare silently out windows with her huge Keane-like eyes. Her dad, David (Robert DeNiro), is a psychologist, though he might be the worst analyst in Manhattan. He decides the cure for Emily's catatonic trauma is to move the child hours away from her own doctor, Katherine (Famke Janssen), to an isolated house in the country. So away the pair go to the imaginatively named rural village of Woodland, where they move into a huge house, all the better to be filled with creaky staircases, hidden closets, old-fashioned bathtubs and faulty wiring.
Woodland is inhabited only by red herrings: an odd cop (Dylan Baker); a pair of needy neighbors with a kiddie fixation; a comely divorcée (Elisabeth Shue); and "Charlie." Charlie is Emily's imaginary (or is he?) friend, who quickly develops a propensity for very bad behavior. Did Emily scribble freaky messages all over the bathroom? Nope, "Charlie did it."
Dad's worried, but as a psychologist and an affluent single parent, he indulges Emily's claims. He seeks advice from his own protégé Katherine, who assures him Emily's simply working through some things: "Trauma causes pain." And who knows what else -- who's mangling dolls? Drowning the cat? Pushing people out of windows? Driving Daddy insane? Charlie, Charlie, Charlie.
The supporting characters have little to do here but appear suspicious. The film begs us to study David and Emily's father-daughter relationship. Watch Dad try to play hide-and-seek like Mom did. Note how Dad frowns when Emily talks about Charlie. Gasp when Emily turns up for dinner in Mom's old evening clothes, per Charlie's suggestion.
Fanning, the blonde imperiled cherub in last year's Man on Fire, has been gothed up here with a dark wig and shadowy eyes. Fanning is one of the better child actors working, and she has a curious preternaturalness that lends gravity to her portrayal of the troubled Emily. Sadly, the script will eventually let her down.
What DeNiro's doing in a hack role like this is a bigger mystery than who Charlie might be. Lately, he's been aggressively slumming in low-grade popcorn-fare like Godsend, Meet the Fockers and Shark Tale, as well as that unctuous American Express television commercial. It's as if DeNiro is challenging us to strip him of the Greatest Actor of Our Generation mantle. Or maybe he just wanted to work with Fanning, who does have great buzz this year.
Despite employing every hoary thriller gimmick -- shrieking teakettles, more hide-and-seek games (get it? hide and seek?), wary glances cast toward the woods, flashbacks to "happier" days -- the first two-thirds of the film sets up an entertaining, if predictable, level of suspense. Then, then, then -- I'm sputtering here -- Hide and Seek yanks out one of those inorganic plot twists, a twist that simply screams, "Look at me! I'm a twist! Ha! Gotcha!"
Clearly, filmmakers such as Polson don't care anymore. He delivers the bare minimum: a cliché-filled set-up of 90 minutes that exists only so a "shocking" twist can be deployed in the last reel. It doesn't matter that such hard-left turns insult our intelligence. By rights, a plot twist should make sense of everything puzzling that's come before -- not throw the mechanics of the story into chaos. Films shouldn't cause spectators to leave the theater befuddled.
And after its corkscrew turn, Hide and Seek abandons any pretense it might have had about being a supernatural or psychological thriller, and heads straight for B-movie shlock. It becomes an inelegant kill-'em-all mess made more unseemly by adding a terrified child to the mix. Even the worst slasher flicks of yore didn't stick in a kid in a primal bloodletting scene, but here, Polson shows no qualms, pretending there's some high-minded psychological angle to the plot development. Really, it's a sick sort of entertainment, and a cheap shot.
In a transparently lame marketing stunt, the film's distributor, Twentieth Century Fox, has announced that for the first time in its 70-year history it will be shipping the film to theaters incomplete -- without the "big twist" final reel. This will be shipped separately and hand-delivered by security guards. Maybe there will be a delivery snafu, and you'll get lucky and catch the abbreviated version.