Death is the ultimate dramatic device, but great art doesn't emerge from strong devices alone. In Take, the directorial debut of Charles Oliver, the impact of a single, startling tragic death immediately conveys the sense of watching a gravely serious movie, which is definitely the case. However, having immediately provided a tone, Oliver fails to follow up with a story powerful enough to justify it. That's not to say that the experience Ana (Minnie Driver) goes through after her son dies in a freak accident before the start of the film isn't relentlessly bleak, but there's hardly anything distinctive about the circumstances to make viewers care any more than they would if they were glancing at it in the morning headlines.

Still, Olilver has made a quietly observant work solely driven by the specific needs of two downtrodden protagonists with completely believable motives. In flashback, we learn that Ana struggled with her son's elementary school, which wants to put him in a special needs program. Meanwhile, she has a hard time communicating with her husband and finding decent work to get by. Elsewhere, reckless gambling addict Saul (Jeremy Renner) destroys his life in a whirlwind of debt. His misfortune, as it's shown in early scenes at a prison where Saul awaits execution, will lead him to accidentally murder Ana's innocent child, Jesse (Bobby Coleman).


The cinematography by Tyler Measom generates an impressive landscape of despair filled with empty desert scenery and the pallid interiors of death row. However, by revealing Jesse's fate in the first few minutes, Oliver eliminates the possibility of a dramatic climax when we learn the details explaining precisely how Ana (with her son in tow) and Saul happened to cross paths. It's actually cathartic when the fatal event finally transpires -- finally, the morose atmosphere makes sense. But it doesn't make sense that half the movie leaves you in the dark about it without keeping the general outcome a secret.

Like Paul Haggis' Crash, Oliver deals with the intersection of catastrophe and happenstance, although Take is a better movie for containing real characters worth caring about. It's his troublesome structure, and inability to inject some occasional liveliness into the script, that makes this focused drama tough to recommend. The characters are so insulated that their motives are tough to discern, which establishes the real finale of the movie -- a shocker for reasons unrelated to the plot. The details might give too much away, but it's worth noting that the last few scenes of the movie basically function as an advertisement for restorative justice, the idea that a victim should play a role in the punishment for a crime. In this case, it involves Ana getting to confront Saul about what he's done. That might supply the best scene of the movie, but it's followed by an end note filled with statistics and pointers for people interested in learning more. So if death is truly the ultimate dramatic device, then its role Take is essentially propagandistic.

Should a law class watch Taken and brings a few lessons out of Ana's experience? Sure, more power to it. And yet it's tough to consider Taken as a positive creative work, however, when the didactic angle is so clear-cut. Instead, Saul's remorse for what he's done feels like it's lifted straight out of the Goofus and Gallant playbook. "I pray to god she hates me," he says, but that's just a set up for the punchline when, naturally, she doesn't.