Hide and Seek. Twentieth Century Fox presents a film directed by John Polson. Written by Ari Schlossberg. Running time: 100 minutes. Rated R (for frightening sequences and violence). Starring Robert De Niro, Dakota Fanning, Famke Janssen, Elisabeth Shue, Amy Irving, Dylan Baker.

Hide and Seek

Warning: this review gives away Hide and Seek's main twist. Don't read if you don't want to know, but trust me: it's really stupid.

So, there's the family, and the dad's a psychiatrist. And his wife just killed himself, right? This is all, as you could imagine, a bit traumatic to his daughter (Dakota Fanning), so he moves them out the country to start over. Unfortunately, his daughter invents this imaginary friend, Charlie, who, unshockingly, starts killing people. Such is the high concept of John Polson's Hide and Seek. The film starts out promising, with a creepy atmosphere and a seeming lack of cheep thrills. Had it kept on this track, it could have been something special; an M. Night Shyamalan picture without the lame dialologue. But no.

Alfred Hitchcock once spoke of "refrigerator movies;" that is, those whose flaws only become clear after viewing the film, specifically while getting a snack from the fridge. Hide and Seek is not a refrigerator movie. Its ultimate twist, one that I think I've seen about a hundred times in the past year, is so obvious and illogical that, once we're past the terrific beginning, the movie unravels as it plays. Red herrings are trotted out in front of us, and anyone with half a brain will be able to figure out where the movie is heading long before it reaches its conclusion. We can tell that things don't make sense because we know where they're going to end up.

This distraction makes it impossible to concentrate on the film's strengths, and there are strengths, chief among them being the strong performances from its two leads. Dakota Fanning exploits her wide eyes and disconcerting self-possession to full effect, turning in an effortlessly creepy performance. Better yet is Robert De Niro, who here does his finest work in years, with a nuanced and subtle performance that nicely supplements his character's late, dark turn (surprised? Didn't think so). Even as the film falls apart around him, De Niro is genuinely chilling.

There's also some rather clever subtext about child abandonment and abuse. The father isolates himself and his daughter in the country and proceeds to ignore her in favor of his work, while she (apparently) slowly goes nuts. She tries to get his attention by (apparently) inventing an imaginary friend and dressing like the world's youngest goth princess, but it doesn't work. For a short while I hoped that the film would genuinely try to examine the effects of emotional isolation on a child's mind, but I expected far too much. The twist reveals De Niro's focus on his work as something entirely different, and entirely illogical, and the girl's emotional trauma as a cheap gimmick, which, beyond being an infuriating fake-out, is also a little morally questionable. It's hard to find very many cheap thrills in a child's psychological rape.

But to be angered by the cheap cop-out of the ending is not to deny the first hour's effectiveness. Director John Polson has a way with atmosphere and thriller direction, letting the claustrophobic environment seem to smother the characters. In the end, though, none of it matters. Hide and Seek is all foreplay, no climax.

© 2005 Matt Noller, not that anyone would ever want to steal this