Sunday, August 12, 2012

Taken Back: Finding Haley (Reel World Management, Taking Back, Unity Pictures, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I turned on last night’s “world premiere” Lifetime movie, the awkwardly titled Taking Back: Finding Haley, shown at the tail end of a day of movies about child kidnapping and telling a supposedly fact-based story (though the Lifetime Web site doesn’t give a clue as to where the actual case took place or what the names of the real people were, and nobody contributing to has put up that information either) in which the central character is Karen Turner (Moira Kelly). When we first meet her she’s happily married to Tim (Toby Levins) and they have a three-year-old daughter they’ve named Haley (as in Alex?); we’re not told what Tim does for a living but Karen is a photographer whose work is considered good enough she’s been exhibited in art galleries. She has her camera out that fateful afternoon when she puts Haley on a merry-go-round and starts taking pictures of her, then turns her camera away momentarily to get a shot of something else, then turns back to the merry-go-round — and Haley is gone! Though director Mark Jean (working from a script by Brian D. Young) is hardly the first to capture the sinister side of carnival imagery in general and the merry-go-round in particular (remember Alfred Hitchcock and the ending of Strangers on a Train?), he does quite a good job of underscoring how quickly a place associated with joy and innocent merriment can turn into something pretty horrific. The next sequence takes place “Two Years Later,” and we quickly learn that Haley has never been found — dead or alive — that Tim has decided it’s time to “move on” and let go of the grief surrounding the loss of their daughter, but Karen has not forgotten her, is convinced that Haley is still alive out there somewhere and is actively searching for her and giving the nice, avuncular African-American detective assigned to Haley’s case a hard time, calling him every week to ask if there are any new leads.

Tim has decided to end the marriage and he’s seen bringing over the paperwork establishing Karen as the sole owner of their house, and though he advises her to sell it she insists that she’s going to keep it exactly as it was when Haley disappeared so everything will be in readiness when Haley is found and returns home. We get a scene of Karen terrorizing a local girl on a swing in a playground when she’s convinced she’s Haley — and, needless to say, she isn’t and the girl’s actual mother thinks she’s some sick weirdo and reports her to the police. The next title says, “Ten Years Later,” and we learn that Karen is still convinced that Haley is alive, and though she’s moved from the town of Atwater, California to nearby Colwood she’s still keeping the house in Atwater and has basically kept it as a shrine to Haley. She’s working as the official photographer for the local high school, and needless to say she latches on to one of the female students and is convinced she is her long-lost Haley. The student is Emma (Kacey Rohl),who’s got a best friend named Alexis whom she can hardly ever see because her mother Susan (Amanda Tapping) is so fiercely overprotective she won’t let Emma go to parties with her age peers or even walk home from school. At first we think she’s just an overprotective parent — her husband Dave (David Cubitt) even tells her she ought to lighten up on Emma and let her have her teenage rebellion — but later on it turns out that her actual daughter died in a bathtub accident at age three and she regularly visits the gravesite and lays flowers at the tombstone — which has no name or dates of birth and death, just a bas-relief of a cherub and the words, “Our Little Angel.”

Where I had thought this was going was that Dave and Susan had done a grey-market adoption and didn’t know their child had actually been kidnapped from her real parents — but no-o-o-o-o, eventually it develops that Susan actually kidnapped Haley/Emma from that merry-go-round because she resembled her real, dead daughter — and Dave, despite his moral misgivings, went along with it and raised the child as his and Susan’s own. For the first half Taken Back is actually a quite good thriller, allowing for the usual Lifetime melodramatics, but in the second half it (in the immortal words of Monty Python) just gets silly: the turning point is in the ludicrous scene in which, having already traced Emma back to her parents’ home (the sight of Karen and Susan surveilling each other is pretty bizarre in itself!), she breaks in one afternoon and has to do a series of farcical hidings-out from the housemaid and from Dave, who comes home unexpectedly from his work as a realtor (or is that a Realtor™?), before she slips out again, but not without first scoring a soft-drink can Emma has drunk out of and given to her friend Megan, a clerk at the Colwood police department, and asked her to run a fingerprint check on it. (Perhaps from having seen too many episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, I was expecting her to ask Megan to have a DNA test run on any stray saliva that might have stuck to the can as Emma drank out of it — and someone on an message board wondered about that, too — but Brian D. Young’s script didn’t get that high-tech.)

Megan runs the test on her laptop at home and is startled to find that her paranoiac friend is right after all — Emma’s and Haley’s fingerprints match — but she doesn’t get to tell Karen that because in the meantime Karen has kidnapped Emma and taken her to the old house in Atwater, and Susan has gone ballistic, got a gun, gone to Megan’s place and, acting under the misapprehension that Megan is her daughter’s tormentor and kidnapper, confronted her, whereupon they struggled, they both reached for the gun (Maurine Watkins, your plagiarism attorney thanks you for his three houses and five cars, including a Rolls-Royce and two BMW’s) and Megan is (apparently) fatally shot. So Susan runs home to her husband Dave and says they have to get Emma back and then leave town immediately — and Dave thinks this is another hysterical outburst from his wife until he finally gets sufficiently convinced that she’s done something terrible that he insists they drive out to the house where all this happened and call the police from there. Meanwhile, Karen is trying to convince Emma that she’s really Haley — all Emma wants to do is get the hell out of there and get back with her family — until Susan shows up brandishing a gun and not only confronting Karen with it but threatening Emma’s own life when Emma goes to hide in the bathroom and Susan shoots the lock off the bathroom door.

Eventually the police, led by that avuncular African-American detective Karen has been harassing for 12 years, crash the place and arrest Susan for the murder of Megan (or attempted murder, since there’s an ambiguous scene at the end that takes place in a hospital and hints that Megan may actually survive), while it’s unclear what happens to Karen (she is guilty of kidnapping, after all, and she has a criminal record) and Emma a.k.a. Haley is obviously severely traumatized by the whole thing and one wonders how screwed up she is going to be in later life now that all the secrets of her parentage are known and her adoptive mom is a killer and her real mom a kidnapper. (Megan and Dave are really the only sympathetic characters in this whole stew.) Apparently Taken Back is destined for a theatrical release in Canada even though its U.S. debut was on Lifetime — there’s one scene towards the end in which Dave says “Goddamn” and the “God-” part was erased from the soundtrack in line with the prissy morals of U.S. basic-cable TV (frankly, my dear, I don’t give a Goddamn!) — and all in all it’s a better-than-average Lifetime movie, though quite frankly it would have been better if they’d toned down the melodramatics, not pushed both the mothers into committing serious crimes and led to the scene I was expecting, in which the avuncular African-American cop would have taken King Solomon’s role and got both Karen and Susan to realize that by continuing their destructive confrontation over Emma/Haley they were only going to destroy her psychologically.