Stanley Jaffe's much underrated theatrical feature
Without a Trace incorporates an unusual resolution that prompted many critics to pan it, upon its release back in late 1983. In discussing this film, there is absolutely no way to avoid revealing the ending here. Therefore, major plot spoilers will follow - and anyone who wants to keep the film's suspense or final revelation intact should avoid reading this assessment. Something of an unofficial companion piece to the equally superb made-for-TV movie Adam, Without a Trace opens on a crisis: a 6-year-old Manhattan boy named Alex Selky embarks on a two-block walk to school one morning and doesn't come home that afternoon. As his grief-wracked mother, Columbia University professor Susan Selky (Kate Nelligan) joins forces with a NYPD detective named Al Menetti (Judd Hirsch) and begins to exercise the various options in an attempt to locate her little boy, their attempts prove useless and fruitless. Eventually, after months and months with no success, a haunting call from an elderly woman leads Menetti to Connecticut, where Alex turns up, shell-shocked but very much alive, and held at bay in a decrepit house by a grotesque older man who has kidnapped the tyke and used him as a caretaker for his invalid middle-aged sister. Without a Trace qualifies as a winner for many reasons, but first and foremost for its mature and intelligent method of approaching a seemingly insurmountable narrative problem that exists whenever the theme of a disappearance is present. For many of us, no event provides greater fascination than a missing person. We're well aware that countless people vanish into thin air each year, and that a large number are never recovered. Stopping here just for a second - and pushing aside the sad actual fates of many of these people - one's mind can be left to race through the intriguing array of possibilities as to the final whereabouts of each person. Within a fictional framework, though, this creates a central problem that is almost impossible to solve; set it up at the outset of a drama, and there is virtually no way to avoid letting the proverbial "monster out of the closet" by eventually presenting the audience with a resolution that (whether it breaks one's heart with calamity or elates one with the joy of a person recovered) is bound to disappoint on some level by simply providing a concrete answer. Avoid providing this answer, and the audience feels cheated. In other words: a no-win situation. One could wax exhaustively on the various attempts that producers have made to work around this, from the weekly narrative renewal of the television series Without a Trace (no relation to the Jaffe film) to the cliff-hanging absurdities of Jonathan Mostow's thriller Breakdown (1997). Jaffe's picture opts for the most intelligent and profound route: like Michelangelo Antonioni's masterpiece L'Avventura and Lodge Kerrigan's wonderful Keane, this film begins to concentrate on something far deeper and more interesting than a simple disappearance. Trace evolves into a psychological drama on the various ways in which survivors manage to cope with trauma per se. The body of the picture wisely and maturely shifts its narrative focus away from the actual investigation (never once do we get bogged down in the minutiae of suspects and false leads) and instead explores the emotional landscape that Susan, as the chief survivor of this calamity, must traverse. Jaffe and his screenwriter, Beth Gutcheon, leave intact all of the doubts, uncertainties, recriminations against her semi-estranged husband and others, and seemingly tireless hope that the mother feels, and trust the audience enough to let us explore this territory along with the character as she aggressively searches for answers regarding her son's fate. In other words, the film as a whole strives for authenticity - and thus wins us over with its credibility, prompting more fluid and ready acceptance of the resolution by the time it arrives. The very best that can be said of this film is that - thanks in no small part to the first-rate performance of Nelligan - we ultimately become so enmeshed in the journey of Susan Selky as a character that the child's return, immensely satisfying though it may be, begins to seem almost incidental when the closing credits finally appear. Many perceived the film's ending as its Achilles' Heel; critics took the motion picture to pieces for providing a resolution that they perceived as both happy and unrealistic. For these reasons, they argued that the wrap-up ruins everything that precedes it. That reaction seems, in retrospect, shallow, sophomoric and naive. In 1983 (the tail end of a dramatic escalation in violence against minors that witnessed many child homicides), the resolution of Without a Trace probably indeed seemed artificial and contrived, but now - in light of cases such as the Elizabeth Smart abduction and the media-permeated discussion of Stockholm Syndrome - the film's denouement attains a thread of social commentary that was hauntingly prescient back in the early '80s. It still may not be typical for abductees to turn up alive and held captive in kidnappers' homes, but these cases have clocked in as increasingly common in recent years - a realization that absolutely rescues the conclusion from allegations of contrivance. Interestingly, with these real-life cases in mind (recall - for instance - Smart's assertion that she will be scarred for life by her abduction), one can rethink the ending of Jaffe's film and realize that for many families such as the one at the center of this picture, the real tragedy only commences with a child's homecoming - an insight echoed by the film's depiction of Alex as emotionally fragile and traumatized when retrieved by the cops. Happy, indeed.
All Movie Guide - Nathan Southern