Felipe Rodriguez’s debut as writer and director is not one to be missed. More conceit than matter-of-fact, Kidnap Capital borrows from the conflicting reports and statistics widely available and contested positing Phoenix, Arizona as the kidnap capital of the United States. Arizona, being a border state to a country known for its own kidnapping, is ripe for Hollywood scrutiny, especially with a contentious black market drug trade and illegal immigration that has and continues to dominate politics in the post-Obama and incoming Trump administrations.
But the accuracy or suggestion that Phoenix is somehow a cesspool of criminals, kidnappers, and undocumented immigrants – the latter of whom are vulnerable to drug traffickers kidnapping them for ransom as depicted in the film- should not be seen as Rodriguez’s primary concern. This is an exploitative film. It is brutal, and it portrays despicable acts that serve as a commentary for larger failures that continue to plague American values and politics.
The story centers on Manolo (Jonathan Sousa) and his pregnant wife Elena (Michelle Arvizu) who are kidnapped and blindfolded with presumably other migrants – primarily from Central America – and transported to a single-family home (known colloquially as a “drop house”) in a middle-class suburb in Phoenix. The taken are then stripped to their undergarments, separated by sex, and concealed inside rooms that could have been a set piece in any of the Saw films. When the kidnappers remove the blindfolds from their victims, Manolo and the others discover nearly two dozen other Latino men stripped, dirty, and emaciated.
Later, we learn the intentions of the kidnapper’s leader Wyler, played by Paulino Nunes. Surrounded by his henchmen T-Town (Carlos Gonzalez-Vio) and Smokey (Joseph Pierre), Wyler lays out the terms of release: You or some immediate family member in the United States must pay $2,800 or face death. Multiply that by 25 or so heads, that’s a big payday for Wyler and crew.
This setup leads to some inevitabilities seen in similar films. We know that Manolo will try to plot an escape and reunite with Elena. Manolo will inevitably battle with other “prisoners,” scenes that will drive the plot and create tensions to intrigue an audience. What captivated me was Rodriguez’s tight rope walk of humanity and exploitation. Regardless of what the crime statistics show, Kidnap Capital is not really about Phoenix. It’s not really about any one place. It is about the subjects of this film: The husband and wife escaping government persecution; a father reuniting with his family; the impoverished, unemployed worker; the MS13 defector refusing to kill innocent people in the failed state of El Salvador.
One could point to a major blot in the Obama administration’s handling of refugees from Central America, and the deplorable (is this word still allowed in daily discourse?) conditions many women and children faced when housed in ICE facilities. Like the kidnapped, they anxiously await a decision: deportation or salvation? Pay the ransom or die? It is such binaries that reduce human experiences to inhuman choices.
Near the end of the film, Manolo opines in what is an obvious soap box by Rodriguez but effective nonetheless. In utter despair and near death, Manolo contemplates his very existence in the world. He wonders why he was born in a country that seeks to kill him, economically and literally, and why his romantic idea of the US as salvation is no different. It is a climax that reminds viewers that exploitative films can be a moral compass within extreme political poles; for many migrants, that compass points north.
Eric Dinsmore | Twitter: @dinsmorality
Image: thatmomentin.com & IMDb