The term “damsel in distress” is a vapid expression to be sure, along with “femme fatale” or the more recent trope of the “manic pixie dream girl.” What these arguably sectarian euphemisms point to is cinema’s steady association and obsession with womanhood in different and distinctive modes.
Certainly there have been times where film has cast an objectifying gaze upon women, just as there have been times when it’s been an empowering and refined representation, too.
The following list looks upon a problematic yet frequently profound plot device that runs throughout film history; the mysteriously missing female. Originally and predominantly found in thrillers and film noir offerings, but apparent in arthouse as well, the stirring search and anguished adventure the premise provides often extends to some truly impressive and unforgettable features.
10. Breakdown (1997)
An effective, if not wholly original action thriller — familiar shades from films like Spielberg’s Duel, Boorman’s Deliverance, and Sluizer’s The Vanishing are ample — Jonathan Mostow’s Breakdown is forcible fun, in a tuat, occasionally terrifying sort of way. Jeff and Amy Taylor (Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan) are driving cross-country through the Southwest desert, and, predictably as the title tells us, once they’re in the middle of nowhere, their jeep breaks down.
Amy naively accepts a ride from a good samaritan trucker named Red (the excellent J.T. Walsh, in one of his last roles). Red stops to assist the couple, telling them about a cafe down the way a short distance that he’ll take Amy to.
Well, left on his own Jeff is able to get the jeep roadworthy and tries to catch up to Red and his wife, but nothing doing. He gets to the cafe and, to his chagrin, no one there has seen Amy, and Jeff’s troubles really begin.
A few clichés of the genre aside, Breakdown is a pretty compelling, and, at times, nerve-racking ride. Russell is a charismatic lead, the story is fast-paced and formidable, with enough twists and turns to keep things jumping at a decent clip, and the final curtain will please most action fans (a more onerous suspense enthusiast might feel a tad tampered with, however).
9. Gone Baby Gone (2007)
Ben Affleck cuts his director teeth on this stylish neo-noir adaptation of the Dennis Lehane best-selling detective novel of the same name.
Set amidst the realistically rendered backdrop of blue-collar Boston, we find two detectives who are also lovers, Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), and Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck), who are on a troubling case concerning a missing four-year-old girl. While Gone Baby Gone has all the hallmarks of a police procedural, it’s morally ambiguous and grievous colors and curves help it to transcend most of its genre trappings.
The child-abduction angle is agonizing, as it should be, and the creepy potentiality that young Amanda McCready was snatched by a pedophile is just one gruesome scenario that the film doesn’t shy away from. Affleck’s fearless performance, and his big brother’s attentive direction, are well served, and often showy, while the film’s many secrets contain more than a few thunderbolts as well as an unforgettable finish.
8. Gone Girl (2014)
Adapted from Gillian Flynn’s bestseller (she also wrote the screenplay), David Fincher’s film is a dazzling, visually dexterous Hitchcockian thriller. Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) up and vanishes, her husband, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) soon becomes the prime suspect amidst growing police suspicion and a frothy media frenzy.
Character uncertainties abound, Nick can’t seem to help but dig himself into a deeper hole time and again, and Amy, what’s her angle? Pike is brilliant in the titular role, perversity in profusion, and when the audience, on the hook for so long, gets resolution, it’s wild, transgressive, and, for all its OTT utterance and Fincher-ascribed grab-bag showy devices, Gone Girl is an ambitious and inventive undertaking, and one that shouldn’t be missed.
7. Bunny Lake is Missing (1965)
Using Merriam Modell’s novel of the same name as the basis for this taut, paranoia-addled psychological thriller, Otto Preminger pulls out all the stops in this noir-infused mini-masterpiece. When an American woman,
Ann Lake (Carol Lynley), living in London, reports her four-year-old daughter, Bunny, missing, it’s up to Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) to figure out what’s what. Newhouse has his work cut out for him as Ann is having a hard time convincing anyone that she even has a daughter, and Preminger provides an almost pagan feel to the images contained within the film, a miasma of beauty and dread.
Unfortunately for the inspector, his case is anything but easy, as it soon appears that Ann may well be mad. Her inability to prove she even has a daughter, let alone that she was snatched from school, is just a point of departure for the intrigue to follow.
Bunny Lake is Missing was one of noted film critic Andrew Sarris’ favorite films, and one he often felt was overlooked, especially from such an esteemed director. “Preminger has no peer,” Sarris wrote in the Village Voice, “to watch his camera prowling around…from room to room, up and downstairs, in and out of doors with the sustained frenzy of a director concerned with integral space is to realize the majesty of mise-en-scène.”
6. Frantic (1988)
Roman Polanski’s paranoiac, sardonic, and unsettling thriller, Frantic, was, in many ways, a comeback film for the controversial director. His previous film from 1986, Pirates, was a dismal failure both critically and at the box-office, so returning to the mystery/thriller genre that served him so well in the past was a wise decision.
Harrison Ford, one of the best action stars of his generation, brings his usual blend of intelligence and gravitas to his role, but downplays his usual chutzpah for a more candid, vulnerable, and relatable reluctant hero as he is thrust into a nightmare scenario.
Dr. Richard Walker (Ford) is an esteemed surgeon visiting Paris with his wife, Michelle (Betty Buckley). Upon checking in to their hotel, Richard takes a quick shower, by the time he’s finished his wife is inexplicably gone. A cordial but essentially inept hotel staff offer little help or comfort as Richard starts to fear the worst, that Michelle has been abducted by perpetrators unknown.
There’s a fair bit of pitch-black comedy, and Richard’s reluctant partnering with come-hither courier Michelle (Emmanuelle Seigner) bolsters proceedings considerably. That their odyssey through the City of Lights is as unromantic as possible is an alluring conceit, and a surprising one, as are the many aberrations and curveballs that transpire in this dicey, occasionally delirious, and intriguing picture.