The most horrific and unimaginable thing a mother or father could face is the disappearance of their child. Whether it is an untimely death, kidnapping, or an act of desertion, the impact it has on the immediate family is absolutely devastating. Without a Trace is director Stanley R. Jaffe’s interpretation of such an event, and although it tells a familiar story, it incorporates some unique elements and powerfully keen acting that help raise this tale above the generic.

The opening scenes in the film remain some of the strongest. Cinematographer John Bailey utilizes long takes to convey a sense of normalcy and calm the morning prior to the incident. Nothing seems out of place, and it shouldn’t, because this is just another morning that Susan Selky (Kate Nelligan) is sharing with her son, Alex (Daniel Bryon Corkill). These scenes are effective because of our knowledge of impending doom. We are forced to watch this loving mother spend her last moments with Alex, and she doesn’t know any better. The next few scenes employ the same techniques, merely observing the action through simple shots rather than augmenting them with flashy aesthetics. Again, we must endure Susan’s pain as she comes to the realization that it’s nearing 6 PM and her son still hasn’t bopped up and down their block.

Susan calls the police as soon as night falls, and the first officer to respond is detective Al Menetti (Judd Hirsch). He comforts her with an air (err?) of experience and confidence, but still carries with him the exhaustion from too many years on the force. While this characterization is rote, Judd Hirsch brings enough conviction to the role to make his character believable and immensely likable. Menetti’s first hunch is Susan’s ex-husband (David Dukes), whom she recently divorced. When he finally arrives he only embroils the situation, bringing to the forefront all the problems that caused the separation in the first place. This element of the film is somewhat compelling, but it wasn’t developed well enough to be as hard-hitting and potent as the main story line. What was lost in the script was the sense of urgency and concern that writer Beth Gutcheon (who also wrote the book on which this film is based) infused into the main narrative.

As the story progresses, Susan becomes catatonic with dread and forms a sense of inoculation to the entire event. In a powerful scene, the camera sits stoically in front of Susan’s piano with the rest of the apartment in the backdrop, consciously out of focus. The director smartly keeps Susan front and center, playing out the beautiful melody of a timeless piece on her instrument, while behind her the cops are feuding with her ex-husband about leaving and putting the case on a lower priority. Has Susan lost hope, or is she merely playing to tune out the discord of reality behind her? Kate Nelligan puts on such a precise and dauntless performance that the audience singularly feels each nuance of her desperation.

The story eventually devolves into subplots involving the alienation of her friends as well as spirituality (the family calls in a psychic to see if her clairvoyance can muster a lead). While the former helps in conveying the mother’s undying determination even at the expense of others, the latter adds a layer of fantasy that only withdrew me from the severity of the scenario. Nonetheless, the film remains effective despite its shortcomings because of some truly great performances by its gifted cast. In addition, the use of a utilitarian shooting style helps to immerse us into this cold tale. The film never tried to be exciting or entertaining, but merely tried to paint a vivid impression of what it would be like to experience such a nightmare. In this it succeeded on all fronts.

Kyle Kogan is a film critic living in Chicago.

Comments (1)

On September 21, 2015 at 12:18 PM, Gabriel M. wrote...

All the more frightening when you remember that it is based on the true story of 6-year old Etan Patz’s disappearance in 1979 (even though the films credits say that any resemblance to real persons or events is coincidental. Yeah right).

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