Every movie made by new voice is an opportunity for audiences to be challenged, excited, and agitated by what they see; new directors can use a cinematic language with which we all are only scarcely familiar. And when that new director has had a feature produced by Darren Aronofsky, we can rest assured that something truly bracing will follow.

The director in question is Josef Kubota Wladyka, here making his English-language feature debut with Catch The Fair One. The movie tells the story of Kaylee (played by real-life boxer Kali Reis), a semi-retired boxer in upstate New York who embeds herself into a sex trafficking ring in the hopes of finding her sister who disappeared several years prior.

Kaylee is half-Native, creating an opportunity for the film to intermix its high-concept thriller premise with some political commentary. Results are mixed. The film’s primary antagonists, who are white, repeatedly emphasize that Kaylee’s sister is “not missed” and then “no one is looking for her” — normally, declarations of this sort would come with an air of cool menace, but here their intention is too blatant to add any kind of chilling effect.

Wladyka uses his baddies to hammer home the point that Native women across the country are at a precipitously high risk for going missing and are rarely found thereafter. A few years ago, Taylor Sheridan‘s Wind River had a similar message packed into a mystery-thriller format but married the cinematic with the political more elegantly for one reason: its characters.

Reis spares no physical or emotional expense in playing Kaylee — it’s a brutal performance for a brutal character, but it’s a character that Wladyka badly mistreats. All of her exposition, all of her moments of personal insight and tenderness come in the film’s first 20 minutes. Thereafter, she becomes a laconic force majeure, suddenly willing to do (and seemingly capable of) just about anything in order to find her sister. It’s an understandable shift, but one that is handled clumsily: at my final tally, the film invested significantly more minutes in its torture scenes than it did on allowing us to get to Kaylee.

Wladyka’s characters, despite a few strong efforts by the cast, usually end up looking more like constructs than like people. This is especially disappointing in a film whose primary subject is one not very often seen onscreen. The “thrill” of a thriller comes in the threat that the characters we understand and care for may not get to live and fulfill themselves in the way we want them to. If there are no real characters, there’s no thrill.

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