In Hide and Seek, Robert De Niro plays psychologist David Callaway, happily living in New York City with his wife, Alison (Amy Irving), and their 10-year-old daughter, Emily (Dakota Fanning). Then, late one night, Callaway finds Alison dead in the bathtub, her wrists slashed with a razor blade. Emily is traumatized by her mother’s suicide and withdraws deep into her grief, staring out at the world through huge brown eyes.
Convinced that Emily’s recovery will be hampered if she remains in familiar urban surroundings that remind her of what she’s lost, Callaway moves out to rural New York. Callaway’s colleague Katherine (Famke Janssen), a child psychologist who feels she’s beginning to make progress with Emily, advises against it, but he is determined to remove Emily from the apartment where her mother died.
They move to a quiet country house outside a small town—a tourist area during the summer but quiet and almost deserted now—on the edge of a sparse forest where you’d expect to find the Blair Witch lurking in a cave somewhere. The local sheriff (Dylan Baker) is a friendly but rather unsettling sort, and the next-door neighbors, Laura (Melissa Leo) and Steven (Robert John Burke), seem to be concealing some kind of secret.
Given the creepy surroundings, it’s not surprising that Emily makes little progress. She hardly speaks even when she’s spoken to, she seldom leaves the house, and she doesn’t even go to school. She does manage to make one friend, though—someone she calls Charlie. Nobody else sees Charlie, and Callaway and Katherine nod sagely, reassured: It’s not unusual for a child to turn to an imaginary friend to help cope with grief or overwhelming stress.
But Callaway’s reassurance is short-lived. Strange things begin to happen. One night, at the exact hour when Callaway discovered his wife’s body, he wakes up to find a similar scene in the bathroom, with no corpse but an ugly message—"You let her die!"—scrawled in what looks like blood on the wall. Emily makes veiled threats against her father’s new friend Elizabeth (Elisabeth Shue). Then something downright nasty happens to the family cat. Every time, Emily insists that “Charlie did it.”
To say more, perhaps, would be to say too much. There are turns and developments in Ari Schlossberg’s script that are obviously meant to be suspenseful and surprising, but the movie follows a tired formula almost from the start. It’s a long road, and we see every twist coming from miles away; as for some of the characters, they might as well have “DOOMED” tattooed on their foreheads.
In the early scenes, director John Polson’s idea of building suspense is to have Fanning take long pauses before every line and then speak with a monotone and a stare. But this only makes the first half drag, and by the time the skree!-skree!-skree! music kicks in, and the truth about “Charlie” becomes clear, it’s too late to pull us into the action.
Hide and Seek doesn’t even make slasher-movie sense. For the first three quarters, we’re wondering why Callaway can’t see how disturbed and even dangerous his daughter is. Then comes the big “twist,” and the movie makes even less sense than before: One major character has known the “secret” all along and could have avoided bloodshed by confiding in someone—but then there wouldn’t be a movie.
Hide and Seek is a run-of-the-mill psycho thriller, notable mainly as one of the more puzzling milestones in De Niro’s career.
Look at it this way: Imagine you’re back in 1975. De Niro, having triumphed in Mean Streets and The Godfather: Part II, is now in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Meanwhile, Clint Eastwood is making Breezy and The Eiger Sanction and is halfway through the Dirty Harry movies. Someone says to you, “In 30 years, which of these men will be making near-classics like Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, and which will be doing American Express commercials, junk comedies like Analyze That and Meet the Parents, and cheesy slasher flicks like Hide and Seek?”
Would you have guessed right?