Hide and Seek

After the suicide of his wife (Amy Irving), David Callaway (Robert De Niro) has packed up his distraught daughter, Emily (Dakota Fanning), and moved to upstate New York for a fresh start. Attempting to mingle with the locals (including Elisabeth Shue, Melissa Leo, and Robert John Burke), David finds that Emily’s strange, withdrawn behavior is only getting worse, with the child mentioning an imaginary friend named “Charlie” as her new companion. David is driven to the brink of sanity when vicious and mysterious occurrences start happening around the house, and Emily blames Charlie after each of the incidents.

Conceptually, “Hide and Seek” is a dependable premise for a taut little thriller. Using a single, central location effectively, while keeping the audience on its toes with some robust screen writing and acting, “Seek” is the type of thriller that a sparkling director could fully realize with expert precision. I’m thinking someone along the lines of Brian De Palma, or even “Mr. Twist,” M. Night Shyamalan. But “Seek” doesn’t have anybody of that caliber guiding it; it has John Polson, the filmmaker behind the dreadful teen thriller, “Swimfan.”

Polson, a former actor turned director, isn’t a polished enough craftsman to take “Seek” to new and interesting places. He’s a company man, drowsily pushing this wet noodle suspense film through the paces, perhaps thrilling the uninitiated, but putting the rest of the audience to sleep. Polson is confusing tedium for tension as he slowly ramps up the mystery behind Charlie, along with tepidly baiting the audience with Emily’s odd behavior. “Seek” runs the gamut of thriller cliches, but predictability isn’t the defining problem of the production. The film truly struggles with the lifeless way Polson distributes his thrills, only rarely letting the film out to actually thrill. “Seek” feels like a very large missed opportunity.

While it used to be the other way around, it’s something of an anomaly to see Robert De Niro playing drama again. As the mousy father suspecting foul play of his angelic daughter, De Niro is expectedly consistent in the role, but feels restrained by Polson’s direction. De Niro makes a good team with Dakota “Macaulay Culkin 2” Fanning, but the 11 year-old actress is just a hair too polished and rehearsed for the role. Emily’s threat never translates off the page as it was intended.

To drum up publicity, 20th Century Fox is going to hilarious William Castle-esquire lengths to “protect” the ending of the film. Without spoiling anything, the climax of “Seek” isn’t all that massive a revelation (a similar thriller, released a year ago, featured the exact same ending), and Polson misses his chance to create something potentially eerie and unsettling by endlessly drawing out the conclusion of the film to a point where the “grand” finale has been completely diluted. “Seek” ends with a whimper and not a bang, but at least it finally ends; sadly, this turns out to be the highlight of the experience.

Rating: D+