When I was young, I wrote a detailed book report on the curious, true-life story of Patty Hearst. In 1974, the 19-year-old granddaughter of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst was kidnapped from her apartment and held for ransom by the Symbionese Liberation Army, or SLA. Weeks went by with one failed attempt after another to gain her freedom. Against all common sense, Hearst put out a tape declaring that she had joined the organization that abducted her and had changed her name to Tania. Days later, she was photographed with a rifle while robbing a local bank. That’s when I first became aware of the psychological condition known as Stockholm Syndrome, where victims of abductions begin to sympathize with their abductors.
That paradoxical reality is at the heart of a story told to us in flashback narration by Henry (Tobey Maguire). One day, escaped prison inmate Frank (Josh Brolin) encounters young Henry (Gattlin Griffith) and his mother Adele (Kate Winslet) in a local store. He wills Adele into giving him a ride by carefully hinting that he’ll harm Henry if she tries to raise the alarm or deny him. The ride, of course, leads to Adele’s home, where she and Henry live alone in near isolation — exactly the perfect setup for Frank.
Unfortunately, it’s anything but perfect for the rest of us. Nothing about this story is, at any point, believable. Adele passes up one clear opportunity after another to do something — anything. You must understand that she’s a broken woman with serious abandonment issues, so it’s all understandable. Got it? Without further distraction, Frank becomes a normal part of their lives. He fixes up the house, repairs their car, teaches Henry how to throw a baseball and shows them all how to make amazing pie crust (think Ghost but with flour standing in for clay). Frank is the consummate male/father figure except for the small fact that he’s both a murderer and escaped convict, but let’s not split hairs. Sanity? Who needs it. After all, there are a romance-novel fantasy of a testosterone-laden brute and the demure, but willing, housewife to consider.
This is a case study in how top-flight acting cannot overcome a broken script. The performances are so good that you desperately want to believe it all makes sense, but it just doesn’t. Time and again, the writers hit us over the head with one crude manufactured manipulation after another, yet unlike the incredible peach cobbler, this recipe is a total disaster.