Truth may very well be stranger than fiction, but fiction is certainly better at detailing coincidences and symbols and the connections of people throughout history. Stolen touts itself as being "Based on a True Story," and if so, then it's just proof that when life stops being random and instead offers puzzle pieces to explain itself, the strangeness dissipates and becomes, dare I say, boring.
Mad Men's Jon Hamm stars in Stolen as Detective Tom Adkins, a police officer whose ten-year-old son disappeared from a fairground eight years ago. Tom has been sullen and withdrawn ever since, and as a byproduct of his obsession with finding his boy, he ended up putting away a serial killer with a taste for young flesh. The only problem is the killer never confessed to taking Tom's child, and so the investigation is ongoing. When the body of a kid Tommy Jr.'s age is found in a box buried deep in the ground, the clues inside the box suggest it's him. Forensics say otherwise. This particular murder and cover-up happened in the 1950s.
Stolen follows Tom as he digs into the past to find out the identity of this new victim. Director Anders Anderson and writer Glenn Taranto have created two parallel narrative lines: the investigation in the 21st Century and the story of the dead boy and his father in the 1950s. The second father is Matthew (Josh Lucas), a good man whose luck always seems to sour. His wife's suicide has left him with three boys to raise on his own. His family takes in the older two, but Matthew must take the youngest, John (Jimmy Bennett), with him while he hunts for work. John is developmentally disabled, and so he's a handful. Most of our time in the 1950s is spent waiting for the kidnapping to happen, and Anderson pulls at least one bait and switch where we think John is going to be snatched and he isn't.
It's not a particularly bad plot as plots go. Two fathers, two abductions, two stories communicating across the years, one informing the other. If Tom can figure out what happened to John, it won't bring Tom Jr. back, but it might bring him some peace. This new motivation turns up the heat for Tom, which makes one wonder why Stolen is so cooled down. The drama here is lifeless and too easily assembled. Revelations come with little surprise, there are no great discoveries made. In one scene Tom doesn't know something, the next he does. The big scene where Tom confronts the killer who has haunted him should be full of blood and spittle, but instead we get old man make-up and a lot of bad writing. It's not a cathartic release because the mystery is solved, but cathartic because Stolen is almost over.
To be honest, through most of Stolen, I kept thinking it would be an all right TV movie. Anders Anderson plays it safe enough that there would have to be few trims to make the film broadcast ready, and his melodramatic directorial style might not seem so cliché if intended for the small screen. The constant sweeping pans and the heavy reliance on Trevor Morris' mushy score in the first 1/3 of the film, when Anderson is trying to move quickly to set up all his characters, grows particularly tiresome. Once he eases back on the throttle, however, it only calls attention to how little of a handle he has on the material or his actors. Hamm struggles for intensity and Lucas tries his best to look harried, but both performers are off their game. Supporting roles by James Van Der Beek and Serenity's Morena Baccarin are serviceable yet unconvincing. Only Rhona Mitra (Doomsday) manages to sink her teeth into her part. As Tom Adkins' wife, she gets at least one more emotion than the other characters are afforded (she is sad and also angry), and that turns out to be enough to put her a cut above the rest.
Who knows how close Stolen adheres to the story on which it is allegedly based. It may be exactly how it happened, with the pieces falling into place after decades of not knowing. If so, neat-o. That doesn't stop the film version from being pretty dull. It's not a horrible movie or even an inept one, the work here is entirely passable. If the hands guiding it were more skilled, it could have been something else entirely. If I wanted to be cute, I'd call it a "stolen opportunity," because it certainly is a wasted one.