Twentieth Century Fox made news last week when it announced that for the first time in its 70-year history it would withhold the final reel of a film — “Hide and Seek” — in an effort to curb advance knowledge of its twist ending. Had Fox really wanted to keep the ending under wraps, though, they should have released only the film’s first 30 minutes in the original shipment — because after that point, even the most inattentive viewer will know more or less where the movie is going.

Directed by John Polson (“Swimfan”), “Hide and Seek” pivots around a recent widower David Calloway (Robert DeNiro) and his young daughter Emily (Dakota Fanning, “Man on Fire”). The two relocate to upstate New York in an attempt to pick up the pieces after the death of Allison (Amy Irving, “Traffic”), David’s wife and Emily’s mother. Soon after, Emily begins to behave strangely, apparently catalyzed by the appearance of Charlie, her new imaginary friend. From there, mayhem ensues and the body count rises. I won’t spoil the film’s twist here, but suffice to say, it’s an unapologetically absurd revelation that invalidates everything that came before it.

The concept for “Hide and Seek” seems to have begun with the ending, and worked backwards with only a bare-bones idea for the story. The screenplay by first-time scribe Ari Schlossberg is so loosely plotted and underwritten that the entire film feels like a setup for the climax, which isn’t even really that surprising in the first place. M. Night Shyamalan has been accused of writing his films such as the “Sixth Sense” backward from their signature twist endings as well, but even if that is the case, he creates vivid characters and engaging visual setups to make them worthwhile. The first hour and a half of “Hide and Seek,” on the other hand, is labored and silly, littered with transparent subplots designed to lead viewers away from guessing the film’s secret. However, they end up confusing the audience more than misleading it.

As lackluster as the story may be, the film does find some solace with its young female lead. Ten-year-old Fanning is a marvel to behold in this movie; she establishes a startlingly ominous screen presence with ease — in great contrast to the more light-hearted roles in her past films. Even the best child actors are usually hit-and-miss in their performances, but Fanning is a talent who consistently outshines big-name actors. Her disconcerting performance proves to be “Hide and Seek’s” lone triumph.

There is a good movie somewhere inside “Hide and Seek,” but as it is, the film is a faulty, wretched mess. Why didn’t they make a straight-forward story, without the contrived finale? It would free the film from the narrative confines that the current climax requires and allow for more exploration of Emily’s alarming behavior, which is by far the most intriguing and entertaining aspect of the film. The “Hide and Seek” we get instead is a flimsy excuse for a horror picture.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars

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