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Hide and Seek finds atmosphere rather than fear

review by matthew webber

The scariest thing about Hide and Seek is how good Dakota Fanning is.

Merely 10 years old, Fanning's body of work has already matched her with Sean Penn, Denzel Washington, and, um, Brittany Murphy. In Hide and Seek, the latest in a long line of post-Sixth Sense Hollywood thrillers starring psychobabble and a plot twist, she now plays the Haley Joel Osment to Robert DeNiro's Bruce Willis, and a 40-year-old veteran in a child's precocious body as a bonus. Like Osment, Fanning can emote volumes with a blink of her huge, sad eyes. Love her or hate her, filmgoers better get used to her, because she'll be looking at a Jodie Foster career arc if she keeps choosing roles this wisely. Every character in the film mentions how adorable she is, which only makes her sunken eyeballs scarier. Unlike Linda Blair in the original Exorcist, Fanning actually has to act evil instead of just scream and spit up, and again she meets her Oscar-winning male lead halfway into a should-be trite film and redeems it.

Early in Hide and Seek, the mother of Emily (Fanning) and wife of David (DeNiro) commits suicide, an act for which both characters subconsciously and/or openly blame David. When Emily's eyes withdraw into her skull and she withdraws into the type of Troubled Child whose scribbled drawings and demolished baby dolls obviously suggest Something Is Wrong With Her, David, a psychologist, thinks a change of scenery will cheer her up and chase the Bad Feelings and Memories away. He also hopes the move from New York City into the countryside can bring them closer together. He even tries to recreate the hide-and-seek games the dearly departed Alison (Amy Irving) used to play.

Since this is a suspense film, things naturally go awry. Although David tries to start over with local beauty Elizabeth (Elisabeth Shue), Fanning is happier playing with an imaginary friend named Charlie, who hates David, is murderously jealous of Elizabeth, and seeks to avenge Alison's death through a series of alternately weird and creepy notes, pranks, and acts of animal cruelty.

"Who is Charlie?" is the question you're obviously supposed to ask, the mystery you're supposed to want to unravel, the device that drives the studio-engineered plot. Whether terrified by the tension or accustomed to the contrivance, the revelation of Charlie can only come as a relief.

There's nothing original about Hide and Seek. Nothing, except for possibly DeNiro's playing a putz. "Suspenseful" cliches from the last decade of thrillers abound: looming house, screaming teakettle, cat pouncing out of a closet, bow scraped across violin strings, bad guy you may or may not suspect although you should.

But, until the last then minutes, after you've found out the twist, the movie sustains an eerie, claustrophobic tension, replete with well-placed shadows and well-timed point-of-view shots, as well as kooky neighbors and condescending cops, all adding up to a more foreboding sum than its parts.

That such a formulaic movie works on any level is a testament to its actors. Before the ending, with the now-exposed Charlie acting more comedic than crazy, Fanning, DeNiro, Shue, and Famke Janssen as DeNiro's psychologist friend are all caged Raging Bulls, restraining the melodrama that threatens to erupt from their mouths.

Yes, Hide and Seek is spooky as hell, even if it never quite reaches true, spine-tingly chilliness.

And Fanning, as dear as she is, gives the straightest-faced portrayal of devilish overwriting ever, which culminates in the hilarious groan of a sequel-setting closing shot that you and whatever multiple personalities you may or may not possess won't want to miss.


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