The classic kidnapping thriller is a staple of the contemporary silver screen. From Taken to A Walk Among the Tombstones, filmmakers have captivated audiences with tales of desperate parents, hulking villains and desperate last stands. But what makes this style of movie so popular and memorable? To answer this question, we must look at the history of kidnapping-thrillers and analyse the appeal of this evergreen subgenre.
The formula for the kidnapping thriller can be traced back to 1931, a year after kidnapping became a federal offense in the United States. The first movie of its kind, The Beloved Bandit, tells the story of a family’s attempt to save the daughter of a wealthy industrialist from her kidnappers. Its success spawned a rash of similar movies, culminating in 1954’s The Colleen Bawn, a Western-style kidnapping movie with a noir twist. By the 1970s, filmmakers had started to court controversy with kidnap-thrillers such as The French Connection, which, though highly praised, faced criticism for its portrayal of law enforcement. In later years, the genre grew in popularity, leading to more big budget productions, such as True Lies and Taken.
So what is it about kidnap thrillers that have made them so appealing for so many years? One aspect is the structure of the stories. Because the stakes are high, filmmakers can heighten the tension from the get-go, opening the door to intense scenes and plausible plot twists.
Beyond the structure, filmmakers are also able to manipulate the audience’s empathy. By creating sympathetic characters, they can facilitate emotional investment in the protagonist’s plight. This is particularly true of kidnapping thrillers aimed at a family audience, where parents or guardians are called upon to take heroic action to save their loved ones.
At its core, the kidnapping-thriller provides an escapist fantasy. The victims are usually familiar faces, playing up to the audience’s preconceptions. In this way, viewers can put themselves in the shoes of the characters and experience the emotional high of their eventual triumph.
Of course, the success of this genre has been limited in recent years. It’s hard for filmmakers to come up with new ideas that stand out from the crowd. Popular releases such as The Roommate and Trespass have tended to focus on older tropes and the same plots. That said, the kidnap-thriller is still capable of inspiring a certain level of dread, as evidenced by the A Walk Among the Tombstones, which more than held its own against its peers in 2014.
Anyone looking to delve into the kidnapping-thriller genre should pay attention to the types of storytelling techniques used. Directors have a number of tools at their disposal to increase the potency of their narratives. Close-up shots, for example, can help intensify a scene and draw out a character’s emotions. Meanwhile, suspenseful music can raise the tension and even instill dread in the audience.
At the same time, filmmakers should add subtle layers that highlight the victim’s plight. This can include the juxtaposition of loud, busy public areas with quiet, unease-provoking gaps. Perspectives shots can also be used to help show a character’s experience. For example, in A Walk Among the Tombstones, a shot of a trepidation-filled street is juxtaposed with a close-up of the kidnapper’s face, further emphasizing their malevolence.
Finally, no good kidnapping-thriller is complete without a hero. Recent examples, such as Ransom and A Walk Among the Tombstones, have shown that an unlikely hero can often be the same key to success, as these characters can connect more with the audience due to their realistic vulnerabilities.
One of the reasons the kidnapping-thriller remains so popular is its broad appeal. Audiences can connect with protagonists from all walks of life. This helps to broaden the genre’s reach, as people can find a protagonist that they identify with, be it the elderly couple of The Colleen Bawn or the travelling father of Taken.
The genre also offers filmmakers a platform to explore moral and ethical issues. This is particularly true of movies such as Phone Booth and The Negotiation, which explore the relationship between criminals and law enforcement. By presenting the story from multiple perspectives, filmmakers can question the audience’s preconceptions and leave them pondering the films’ ideas.
On the other hand, not all kidnap-thrillers are interested in giving us a moral lesson. In films such as No Good Deed and Sisters in Sorrow, the emphasis is on gripping chase scenes and nail-biting standoffs. By focusing on the action, these films create a sense of excitement, encouraging viewers to cheer for their favorite character.
Visual effects are also important to consider in the kidnapping-thriller. While practical effects often feature heavily (e.g. explosions, gunfights etc.), digital special effects have become increasingly important in recent years. By mixing practical and digital effects, filmmakers can create an environment that’s both thrilling and believable.
Recent films such as Captive and Nina’s Chimney have mixed practical effects with CGI, creating vivid worlds that transport viewers into the heart of the action. These films use effects to enhance the narrative, with dynamic action scenes and suspenseful chases.
Furthermore, effects can be used to create larger-than-life villains. In recent years, computer generated imagery has been used to bring to life menacing kidnappers from mafia bosses to superhuman criminals. By creating an element of fear, filmmakers can also encourage viewers to identify with the victim.
Themes of Escapism
It’s also worth noting the themes of escapism present in the genre. Like many fiction genres, kidnap-thrillers often tell stories of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, allowing viewers to imagine themselves as the hero. This is something filmmakers have played on since the early days of the genre, with movies such as The French Connection encouraging viewers to put themselves in the shoes of its protagonists.
With the help of modern filmmaking techniques, directors can also create a heightened sense of immediacy. Through the use of hand held cameras, or rapid cuts, directors can make viewers feel as if they are in the middle of the action, giving them a window into a thrilling, suspenseful world.
Meanwhile, runaway kidnap-thrillers can also provide light-hearted moments. While watching a movie, audiences can root for their favorite character and be exhilarated when they triumph in the end.
Ultimately, kidnapping-thrillers remain one of the most popular genres in contemporary cinema. Whether they focus on action, suspense or moral issues, these films offer something for everyone, staying fresh and relevant despite their age-old tropes.
Exploring Contemporary Representations
In a modern context, kidnapping-thriller films often explore our understanding of justice and morality. This is particularly true of The Negotiation and its exploration of the tension between justice and mercy. Other films, such as A Walk Among the Tombstones and The Faces of My Girlfriend have chosen to focus on the psychological aspects of their stories, presenting characters who are complex and often unpredictable.
At the same time, filmmakers have begun to explore the sometimes lesser seen elements of the genre. Movies such as Stray Cat and the Cyborg have focused on the victims of kidnapping, providing a unique window into their fear and desperation, as well as their courage. Other films have explored the aftermath of a kidnapping, looking at the psychological toll it can take on its victims.
The kidnapping-thriller genre has also opened up a platform for discussing current issues. The Pawn Shop, for example, tells the story of a man who abducts the daughter of a wealthy banker in an attempt to raise awareness of the disparity between the rich and poor. Other movies, such as Girl in Woods, draw attention to wider socio-political issues, such as gender equality.
Celebrity engagement is also a key ingredient for successful kidnapping-thrillers. Although not always the case, mainstream films have frequently touted the talents of big-name stars. Taken and No Good Deed, for example, both starred Hollywood heavyweights Liam Neeson and Idris Elba.
By adding bankable stars to their projects, filmmakers can help to widen their target audiences and draw more attention to their work. What’s more, by adding an element of familiarity, celebrities can add an extra layer of suspense, as viewers can connect emotionally with the characters they recognize.
At the same time, not all kidnapping-thrillers require star power. Indie productions such as The Captive and House at the End of Street have opted to focus on memorable characters and captivating storylines, creating suspense without the need for a name star.
In conclusion, kidnapping-thrillers have remained a staple of cinema for decades. By combining high stakes, sympathetic characters and exciting stunts, these movies have consistently excited and intrigued audiences. As the genre continues to evolve, filmmakers can use the tools of the trade to create gripping, thrilling tales that stand out from their peers.