Title: The Abduction of Zack Butterfield
Director: Rick Lancaster
Starring: Brett Helsham, T.J. Plunkett, Lisa Gunn, Aaron Letrick, Stephen Ryder, Celine de Tertre
One of the downsides of the digital revolution and shrinking production costs is that the removal of various financial and technical impediments to feature filmmaking makes every emboldened Tom, Jane and Harry think that their ideas truly need to be shared with the world, and that their genius is now only one festival screening away from being discovered, launching them into a stratosphere of artistic embrace and appreciation. This is often manifested in gimmicky dramatic conceits that fail to possess much in the way of intellectual examination. Witness State’s Exhibit A in this line of reasoning: The Abduction of Zack Butterfield. A woefully inept and entirely pointless air-quote psychological thriller which throws together two characters in a potentially hot-button narrative design and then does absolutely nothing of consequence with them, the movie is a wince-inducing, across-the-board collection of substandard elements.
After a bit of scene-setting teenagedom to sketch out 14-year-old Zack’s innate decency as compared to his hornball friends, the film, set in upstate New York, plays its abduction card and pivots, ostensibly, into a kidnapper-hostage drama, wherein the victim begins to (possibly) display signs of affinity for his captor. A former Army solider and Blackwater — excuse me, Dark Creek — independent contractor who served several tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan as some hot-shit commando, April (Brett Helsham) nabs Zack because men are pigs and, as she puts it, “I figured those teachers you see on the news are on to something.” Putting a necklace rigged with explosives around his neck and locking Zack up in a room filled with a strangely substantial number of miniature sports balls, April proceeds to try to woo him in a naughty schoolgirl outfit, before finally proceeding to tell him all about her childhood.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Butler (co-writer Stephen Ryder), ever the investigative genius, has a series of increasingly (unintentionally) hilarious conversations with Zack’s parents (Aaron Letrick and Lisa Gunn), and two FBI agents show up on the case and advise them to “move on.” Of course, Zack can only resist the power of his adolescent boner for so long, so he eventually yields to April’s amorous advances, which leads to one of those sex scenes where the camera stays locked on the bed’s edge for 90 seconds, while articles of clothing are tossed into frame. There’s also (seriously) a two-minute guitar sing-along, before things eventually culminate in a close-quarters “fight scene” that’s no more complex than the scuffle you and your seven-year-old brother once had over who ate the last piece of Black Forest cake.
Cinematographer Aric Jacobson overdials attempts to pump up a sense of lurking menace by repeatedly shooting through windows and glass, but the movie’s twin chief failings come by way of its inane script and terribly flat and problematic staging, courtesy of director and co-writer Rick Lancaster. Is this Death and the Maiden, or even Sleuth? No, no it is not. But forget cat-and-mouse gamesmanship, though. The script fails, in an interesting way, to dig into the intrigue and expectations which its gender-swapped roles bait. Neither does it convey even a cursory explanation of April’s psychological motivations (the predatory impulses don’t match the description of her personal history), nor, despite a brief flirtation with a deeper engagement, really explain why April chose Zack as her prey. Its dialogue and scenarios are also painfully direct and on the nose, as when April pulls out a physician’s desk reference to diagnose Zack’s “depression” over being kidnapped. This reduces entire scenes to jaw-dropping parody (Honestly, after Sheriff Butler asks Zack’s parents if their kid has had “a new man in his life, a casual acquaintance… like a truck driver?” my notes became simply a string of bemused exclamation marks), and damningly undercuts any chance the film has of being taken seriously.
The staging is flat, and drab, making poor spotlighted use of already limited means. And if one can’t realistically stage action — as two or three scenes here nominally require — it’s best to avoid it entirely, and merely trade in moody implication or shocking after-effects. Lancaster, though, fumbles these bits mightily, revealing a significant technical incompetence.
Oh, then there’s actually the acting, too. While Helsham and Plunkett are both novices with technique, and thus have trouble in some of the scenes requiring more emoting, it’s the wildly amateurish supporting acting in particular that dooms The Abduction of Zack Butterfield to depths of risible mockery from which it cannot escape. If there’s a fate worse than being kidnapped, one feels by the end of this movie’s running time, it’s being kidnapped by these filmmakers, and forced to participate in one of their low-fi cinematic parlor games, which never should have escaped the realm of the theoretical.
Written by: Brent Simon