Buckle Up

Jodie Foster takes `Flightplan' into the upper reaches of suspense

MovieReview B+

September 23, 2005|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,sun movie critic

A recently widowed mother, her young daughter in tow, flies across the Atlantic, her husband's casket in the cargo hold. Mid-flight, she awakens from a nap to discover her daughter is nowhere to be found. No one on the plane remembers seeing her. The flight crew doubts she ever existed. Eventually, the mother, distraught with grief, begins questioning her own sanity. But she never stops looking. ...

Jodie Foster appears in a movie every other year or so, and Flightplan reminds us why her films are worth the wait. As Kyle Pratt, a mother undergoing extraordinary stress and uncertainty, Foster sells this part with every acting muscle in her body, committing to the screen a character devastated by grief and worry who nonetheless taps into deep reserves of strength.

The movie opens in Berlin, in a funeral home, as Kyle oversees the sealing of her husband's casket. Almost everything in the opening scenes plays out in half-shadows; from the start, director Robert Schwentke and cinematographer Florian Ballhaus keep everything obscured, leaving the audience unsure, unsettled. People are glimpsed for only a few seconds, faces are seen in half-shadows. Kyle's daughter, Julia (Marlene Lawston), terrified by her father's death, is afraid to leave their home, stepping outside only when her mother allows her to hide under her coat.

Once on the plane, things move quickly, and the movie plays out in real time. Mother and daughter are the first to board, and Julia is soon fast asleep beneath her blanket, her protective mother draped over her. But Kyle falls asleep as well, inadvertently releasing her grip on her daughter. When she wakes up, Julia is gone.

Foster's Kyle doesn't panic immediately, instead allowing her fear to build gradually. Kyle's a smart woman, an airplane designer (she designed the very plane in which she's flying) who believes in cold, hard logic. Certainly, Julia has just wandered off, maybe to explore, maybe to play with other children, maybe to hide.

But the girl never turns up. Kyle demands to see the captain (Sean Bean), demands that the crew help her look, demands that the plane land as soon as possible. The captain and crew members (including Erika Christensen and Kate Beahan as flight attendants) grow increasingly skeptical. They become convinced that Kyle is delusional, as does another passenger (Peter Sarsgaard), whose offers to help Kyle are made more and more grudgingly.

But Kyle knows Julia exists, knows she's missing and knows she isn't going to give up until they find her. She screams out every possibility: Someone's taken her for ransom; someone is manhandling her in a corner of the plane; someone has taken her and plans to hijack the plane (post 9/11 hysteria is a recurring undercurrent of the film). Kyle will say anything, do anything, fight anybody to find her daughter.

Foster manages to keep Kyle just this side of crazed; yes, she's desperate, especially when it's suggested that her frantic search is a manifestation of grief. Kyle allows herself a few moments of self-doubt, especially during a carefully measured scene with Greta Scacchi as a therapist.

But no matter what anyone says, Kyle knows it wasn't a figment of her imagination that she put to bed the night before, that she protected with her coat, that she gently carried onto the plane.

Flightplan features a carefully chosen cast. Sarsgaard and Bean, in particular, have made careers playing characters not to be trusted; we always wonder whether they're in on the plot - if there is a plot. We're never sure whether the first part of the film was real or part of the inner workings of Kyle's grief-stricken mind.

There is a serious hole in the film's plot, an assumption made by scriptwriters Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray, about people's tendency to see but not see, that is difficult to swallow. And the explosive resolution is a bit too convenient.

Still, for at least two-thirds of its length, all elements combine for a taut thriller, a Hitchcockian exercise in suspense pitting human frailty - can our minds be trusted? - against human resourcefulness. That's the sort of yin vs. yang that usually makes for exciting films. Flightplan doesn't disappoint, and neither does Foster.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

FLIGHTPLAN (Touchstone Pictures)

Starring Jodie Foster, Peter Sarsgaard. Directed by Robert Schwentke.

Rated PG-13.

Time 88 minutes.

Review B+

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