Oh Dad, Poor Dad
The bad-seed/demon-spawn kid has been a staple of psychological-supernatural horror. Of more recent birth are documentary and fictional accounts of missing children, trafficked from the Third World into sexual or labor slavery or, in the West, imperiled by parents, kidnappers, pimps or perverts. Director and co-producer Anders Anderson’s Stolen scurries back and forth in time to consider, not so much links between two such disappearances forty-two years apart or even really the troubled motives for them, but, rather, the long-term reactions of the boys’ fathers and what one, in 2008, learns from the 1958 other.
Cases now and again become national or international headlines, but most of the alarming number never get beyond pathetic snapshots on milk cartons. Child kidnapping, and often murder, makes for sensationalist fact-based fiction, but this Glenn Taranto script plays down the gruesome to concentrate, instead, on the mundane that must coexist with the emotional.
Unsolved, the twin exciting events are related through a diner outside Barnstable at the base of Cape Cod, through objects like a whistle and energizer-bunny key ring, and through a gallery of characters turned up half-a-century apart.
Although the film time-shifts often and well without the current plague of printed announcements, many participants are not differentiated clearly enough, so that, for example, a facial birthmark strikes only an unplaceable bell; and a hint that a now-grown child (the older Luke Wakefield, played by Sam Hennings) may himself have an unhealthy interest in young boys, is simply uncalled for.
Specifically, the time-and-event connection is Detective Sergeant Tom Adkins (Jon Hamm), testifying directly into the camera against commuting the execution of child murderer Bert Roggiani and also flashback-chronicling the disappearance of his own son.
Eight years have passed since the policeman went to the bathroom and returned to find Tom, Jr., gone from the booth, the diner, and the world. Obsessed, refusing to touch the boy’s room, the father has grown distant from Barbara (Rhona Mitra), she also of course mourning but readier than he to move on and realize that their child would have been a man now and not the ten-year-old frozen in memory.
Construction workers unearth a wooden Fiola Kramer Toys & Novelties box containing a decomposed boy, who forensics determines is not, as husband and wife supposed and feared, their son. Upset by friend Pete Dunn’s (Marcus Thomas) newspaper coverage of “the Boy in the Box,” Detective Adkins is drawn to the mystery, unconsciously to deal with his own turmoil.
Thus to the flashback past, where Matthew Wakefield’s (Josh Lucas) wife hangs herself and he is unemployed, losing the house to foreclosure in two days’ time, and left widowed father to three preteen sons. The dead wife’s surly brother-in-law Jonas (Michael Cudlitz) will take in only the two oldest “or none” of the “pack of wild Indian” boys but draws the line at somewhat retarded John (Jimmy Bennett).
With no choice but to earn money with which to return, father and son drive on. A hard worker dubbed “Christian” for his beliefs, Matthew finds a construction job alongside “Swede” (Holt McCallany) and, so named because of his reading, “Diploma” (James Van Der Beek). The latter takes the single father under his wing and, insisting on female companionship as a remedy, fixes him up in a bar with married but compliant Rose Montgomery (Morena Baccarin). Already approached several times before by a man in a slouch hat, son John disappears from the car during the moments Matthew is loving up the woman against a back wall.
The boy is not found (until 2008), and the father and his life are wrecked, even despite a subsequent marriage to sympathetic diner waitress Sally Ann (Jessica Shastain and, in later years, Rutanya Alda).
The past cannot be changed, points out Tom, Sr.’s, mother, but if you destroy your present, your marriage and its future, there is no one to blame but yourself. Currently overused “closure” and “redemption” loom on the horizon.
Not pretentious in its implications, Stolen nevertheless depends excessively on coincidence, on unlikely connections and not clearly differentiated characters. About those who must continue in the face of overwhelming tragedy, it could have been more incisive. But that would have been riskier, though possibly better.
(Released by IFC Films and rated "R" for a scene of sexuality.)