To paraphrase British poet Philip Larkin: Your parents, they really mess you up. That's doubly true of a parent in the psychiatric profession. The biggest mistake psychologist Dr. David Callaway (Robert De Niro) makes following his wife's suicide is to take his ten-year-old-daughter Emily (Dakota Fanning) from Manhattan to a rambling, isolated home upstate. He should know better. Big houses in the country are not conducive to recovering from trauma.
The creative team behind the predictable Hide and Seek should know that a creepy lakeside residence and a pair of strong actors aren't enough for a satisfying psychological thriller-cum-horror movie. Sticklers for plausibility can relax. The plot is logically sound, a substantial reason it's so easy to figure out. The weakness lies in its transparency more than its execution, though deliberate pacing affords too much time to noodle the scenario.
Emily's reaction to being uprooted after seeing her mom (Amy Irving) lying in a bathtub of bloody water is text book. She appears possessed, like a cross between Damien of The Omen and Christina Ricci as Wednesday in The Addams Family. Daddy's behavior is more peculiar, and not just retrospectively, after the film's easily deciphered and well-worn twist is revealed. In addition to making plenty of small parenting mistakes, he adopts a cold, cerebral approach to their collective grief -- just how you imagine a stereotypical shrink would.
Emily responds to his emotional constipation by lashing out -- mutilating dolls, skewering beetles on fishhooks, and recreating her mother's deathtub scene. She blames the latter on a new imaginary friend named Charlie, who's fond of playing games that turn meaner and more violent as time passes. She cautions daddy not to upset Charlie. The easy diagnosis is that she's venting her anger toward both parents. Meanwhile, Dr. Callaway is waking up sweaty from nightmares concerning a pivotal episode in the marriage.
The misdirection employed has you guessing, if at all, simply out of hope. The locals believe Emily is vexed but aren't above suspicion. The couple next door has just lost a daughter to cancer and makes creepily doting comments; odds are the Sheriff (Dylan Baker) is twisted. A divorcee (Elisabeth Shue) tries to warm up to father and daughter, her décolletage signaling an imminent demise. And Callaway's protégé (Famke Janssen) offers phone consultations from back in New York.
Though the production values are fine, director John Polson (Swimfan) can't energize the usual genre fixtures -- a spooky basement, a cave in the woods, lots of wind and rain. Aside from a few glimpses of corpses and the child-in-peril element, an R rating seems unwarranted. There's no gore, cursing, or sex. Maybe it's a case of the studio hoping the MPAA's ruling would create the allure of forbidden fruit?
All in all, Hide and Seek isn't as bad as it will be judged by those fed up with De Niro's recent choices. His placid countenance, evident in the robotic performances he’s prone to give lately -- remember the cloning wreck Godsend? -- slots nicely into the role. We're accustomed to seeing him tight and controlling, even when doing comedy. From one standpoint, you root for Emily as she toys with her father. Rejecting his analytical approach and inability to show affection is healthy. Fanning gets ample opportunity to make deranged and terror-stricken faces. Her demon child act is good, yet her genuine talent emerges in the crunch. You shudder when Emily moans, "I don't want to play with Charlie now." No need to feel sorry for Fanning however. This outing won't harm her career.
On a thematic level, the interplay between father and daughter is about adults imposing order and calm on children to pacify themselves. Society is quick to shift focus and blame onto kids' mental states; we over-diagnose and over-medicate. What looks like coddling is actually abuse and exploitation. Because it illustrates the phenomenon, Hide and Seek won't get any seals of approval from parenting organizations or the psychiatric profession. In short, shrinks make lousy dads and Emily will be in therapy forever.
(Released by Twentieth Century Fox and rated "R" for frightening sequences and violence.)