Hide and Seek

“Hide and Seek” is the kind of by-the-numbers thriller where a man says, “I was always afraid of the woods” just so someone can reassure him, “Nothing to be afraid of in THESE woods,” and it’s all some screenwriter’s brilliant idea of foreshadowing. Because of course there IS something to be afraid of in these woods, duh.

I can recommend “Hide and Seek” to you if you enjoy films depicting families who move into giant, secluded houses where odd phenomena occur, and in particular if you like for those phenomena to involve old music boxes. (Personally, the very idea of music boxes has been tainted for me, because of their frequent inclusion in scary movies.) And do you like multiple red herrings and climaxes full of deus ex machinae? Then once again, “Hide and Seek” is up your alley.

The rest of us will find it to be an ordinary, mildly suspenseful, eventually preposterous thriller that warrants no more attention or thought than the time it takes to watch it, if that.

Robert De Niro, offering further proof that the time to stop respecting him as a great actor was at least five years ago, plays David Callaway, a New York psychologist whose wife slits her wrists in the bathtub as the film begins (possibly BECAUSE the film begins). He is left to care for their young daughter, Emily (Dakota Fanning), who witnessed the aftermath of the suicide and is traumatized by it.

Seeking to get away from the nasty old memories of the city, David moves himself and Emily to upstate New York, to a secluded old house on the lake. Here they can build a new life together, a life free of dead, exsanguinated mothers in bathtubs, a life where complete isolation from the rest of the world will surely help Emily become a normal, healthy little girl.

But wait! Removing Emily from her familiar surroundings and putting her in a strange old house with only her De Niro-ish father to keep her company somehow FAILS to lift her spirits! Already morose and haunted, she initiates some disturbing behavior along the lines of maiming dolls and torturing insects. She also creates an imaginary friend named “Charlie” on whom she blames her various misdeeds — not unlike the “Family Circus” children and their playful alter ego “Not Me,” except that Charlie drowns the family cat and writes accusatory messages over the bathtub, mischief that Not Me could only dream of perpetrating.

Emily apparently blames her father for her mother’s suicide, and she apparently intends to lay the blame at his feet not through tearful outbursts over dinner (which is the generally accepted method), but through eerie, destructive behavior that causes pets to die (which is somewhat frowned-upon).

I don’t count myself among Dakota Fanning’s devotees — I assume there are some — but I do admit that the creepy little girl does a good job playing a creepy little girl. At last, she has been assigned a role that suits her. She has a natural quality about her in this film, not contrived, as in most of her other appearances.

The film’s trouble comes in its finale, where it attempts to negotiate a twist that is beyond its capabilities. Written by new-comer Ari Schlossberg and directed by “Swimfan” auteur John Polson, the movie just isn’t clever enough to pull off what it’s trying to do. It’s so intent on keeping us from guessing the ending that it lies to us — or, at the very least, seriously misleads us — about certain events earlier on.

This isn’t fair, of course, and a movie that has to cheat to win its surprise is not a movie to be respected. It’s not worth the effort to actively dislike “Hide and Seek”; it is enough merely to disregard it.

C (1 hr., 40 min.; R, one F-word, lots of scary moments, some blood. I'd have rated it PG-13, really, but they didn't ask me..)