Movie Review: A Danish photographer in the hands of ISIS, “Held for Ransom (Ser du månen, Daniel)”

True stories of kidnappings of Westerners in the Middle East are rarely resolved with heroics.

There’s little defiance by the helpless, tortured captives, rare opportunities for pithy one-liners, even if you could come up with one under such duress.

The Danish thriller “Held for Ransom,” released as “Daniel” elsewhere, is a sober, unglamorous and moving account of one man’s ordeal as he was held by the disparate Syrian factions that became known as Daesh or ISIS.

There would be no Seal Team Six coming for Daniel Rye. All he could do was endure, hope for luck because he couldn’t expect mercy from his brutal captors, and hope too that his family would come up with the ransom demanded, a ransom his government would neither help pay nor facilitate.

We meet Daniel (Esben Smed of “Summer of ’92”) on the day his life took its first blow. We see the gymnast injured at an exhibition, just before the 2012 Olympics, which he’d been training for since 2006.

He’s keenly aware that he needs to move on and find work, because his large middle class family can’t afford any more indulging of his dream. The job he finds promises its own fame. He’ll be assistant/apprentice to a Copenhagen photographer.

“Got a passport?” Sure. So he’s on a plane to Mogadishu. His new boss is a conflict photographer.

It’s when Daniel tries to pull together a freelance job on his own shortly after that that he gets in over his head. Despite hiring a guide, a driver and a bodyguard, despite sticking close to the Syrian-Turkish border, despite taking innocuous shots of civilians trying to carry on their lives in a bloody Syrian civil war, he finds himself with a gun to his head.

“Held for Ransom,” a story told in Danish, English, Arabic and French, follows Daniel’s torture at the hands of various parties, and then imprisonment with other foreigners– most of them journalists — where the torture continues as ransom demands are made and mostly left unmet.

One who shows up later in his captivity is an American journalist, James Foley (Toby Kebbell) that the CIA and others are frantically trying to locate.

But in addition to the familiar scenes of cruelty of the “sadistic monsters” holding them (carried out by four British expats nicknamed The Beatles), “Held for Ransom” tracks the efforts to get Daniel out by his family via an ex-special forces go-between (co-writer/director Anders W. Berthelsen), a man who warns his mother and father (Christiane Gjellerup and Jens Jørn Spottag) that their efforts to negotiate a release “needs to stay secret.”

They can’t tell anyone he’s been kidnapped, otherwise the terrorists will be exposed as simple criminal thugs, and not “freedom fighters” to be taken seriously. Somehow, you know Daniel’s hotheaded older sister (Sofia Torp) isn’t going to take that approach well, after she eventually and furiously finds out.

The stand-out qualities in this straight-no-chaser Middle East kidnapping thriller start with the relentless cruelty depicted. Demeaned, beaten on the soles of his feet, dragged out for “proof of life” photos, alarmed at every pound on the door and shouted “AGAINST THE WALL,” we get a serious dose of how spirits are broken in such situations. Begging for death isn’t unheard of.

“You have to EARN the right to die!”

Sympathetic performances alternately show us terrified captives and distraught and frustrated relatives, and from a terrific first act set piece where we see the risks to kidnappers when they don’t realize their new hostage is a gymnast. Smed is great at getting across an athlete with a young, nimble, highly-conditioned body and high threshold for pain improvising an escape plan the moment the slight chance of getting away presents itself.

Berthelsen makes a rugged, no-nonsense negotiator, and Torp is quite good as the sister who leaps from concerned to enraged at the lack of help her “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” government will give.

No, nothing much that turns up in “Held for Ransom” holds the possibility of surprise, even if you don’t know the true story it’s based on. It’s alarming how well most of us know the drill — the van that rolls up, the men who hustle a captive inside, the blindfolds, handcuffs, beatings and starvation that ensues.

It’s common, too, to take the aloof view that governments declare and many of us parrot whenever someone who goes into trouble spots meets this fate — “They should’ve known better than to go there.”

Daniel is the youngest of those being held — who include a Frenchman, an Italian, a Russian, an American and Spaniards, some of them journalists, some aid workers. And he is the one who repeats the conflict journalist’s credo, reminding us that they do “know better” and go anyway.

“If we don’t dare to come here, how will the world know what happens?”

Rating: unrated, violence

Cast: Esben Smed, Sofia Torp, Sara Hjort Ditlevsen, Anders W. Berthelsen, Christiane Gjellerup KochAmir El-Masry, Ardalan Esmaili and Toby Kebbell.

Credits: Directed by Niels Arden Oplev and Anders W. Berthelsen, scripted by Anders Thomas Jensen and Anders W. Bethelsen and based on a book by Puk Damsgaard. A Samuel Goldwyn release.

Running time: 2:13

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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