Michael (18)

This kidnap movie is too humdrum to be terrifying, finds Ryan Gilbey.

Michael (18)
dir: Markus Schleinzer

The adult and child visiting a petting zoo in the new film Michael could be any father and son. The ten-year-old lad is jostled by bleating goats; his guardian, who is in his mid-thirties, squints through a coin-operated telescope.

But the man is a shade too rough in steering the boy - he grabs at him where a parent would guide. When the boy glances over his shoulder at another adult and child, the forlorn look is held just long enough for us to guess, if we hadn't already been told, that something is terribly wrong.

In a plain house on a suburban street in Austria, the man (Michael Fuith) keeps the boy (David Rauchenberger) in a basement cell. We can deduce that he was snatched at least a year previously, perhaps longer - the man has amassed a fat wad of his young prisoner's letters home, which the child believes have been posted to his parents. Terror has been replaced by sullenness. Captor and captive eat together quietly. They do the dishes. Television is sometimes permitted. Like any child, the boy tries to cadge a few extra minutes' viewing when told that his hour is up. He has more reason than most to seek a deferral of bedtime.

The writer-director, Markus Schleinzer, is straight out of the Michael Haneke School of Fun: his camera holds steady and hangs back, cataloguing mundane rituals without the inflection provided by a score. Indeed, Schleinzer used to be Haneke's casting director. Would that the pupil had paid closer heed to his teacher. Can you imagine a film that's both oppressive and superficial? A portrait of a predatory paedophile that is throwaway, even glib? This is Michael.

For a good portion of the movie we are in banality-of-evil territory. Schleinzer is discreet in depicting the boy's abuse, so that the film's most unpleasant jolts arise from sudden ruptures in familiar behaviour. All parents or guardians have experienced the tremor of panic at any rise in the temperature of a feverish child. Fewer will have made it a priority to rush out and dig a grave on the off-chance that Calpol doesn't work its usual magic.

It seems considerate when the man buys a spiffy bunk-bed, until he goes out on a second shopping expedition, this time for a child to occupy the lower bunk. Also worth noting is the kidnapper's care in smoking outside the house. It's one thing to take a boy from his family and to rape him whenever the mood strikes, an act commemorated by a neat "x" made on the relevant day's diary page. Exposing him to passive smoking, though, is beyond the pale.

When he's not abusing his prisoner, the man holds down a job at an insurance company where he is hoping for a promotion. Schleinzer has perhaps overestimated the shock we will experience from the contrast between the man's public and private sides. Michael can hardly be said to put its audience through the wringer.

To make a film on this subject without any sustained element of pain or intensity is a dereliction of duty. And that's accounting for the extra layer of trauma accessible to UK viewers, who will spot the resemblance between Fuith, the balding, jagged-faced actor playing the paedophile, and Paul McKenna, hypnotist and author of noted philosophical texts such as I Can Make You Smarter - the only self-help book to deliver on its promise exclusively to those who refrain from reading it.

When Schleinzer tries his hand at humour, in a scene that shows the man recounting slasher-movie dialogue to his despondent victim, any faith in his control of tone expires completely. (And that's before the director puts the Boney M song "Sunny" to ironic use.) Characterisation extends no further than some tasteless parallels between abuser and abused, who are shown at different points sobbing quietly to themselves, having their temperature taken and recovering in bed from illness.

As far as I can tell, the picture doesn't specify whom the title refers to until the final minutes. That represents a deeper, more insidious parity between the characters, but I would need to watch Michael a second time to be sure. Just this once, I think I can live with the uncertainty.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The last Tsar