A basic dramatic rule holds that when two people are in conflict, with one pacing and pontificating wildly and the other sitting in a chair, the person in the chair holds all the power. Why? Because the ranting person is expending all the energy. In telling the story of an attractive young corporate executive and the security guard who abducts and torments her, the peculiar horror film P2 illustrates this rule repeatedly, which helps explain why it isn't especially scary. In spite of the victim's compromising circumstances, there's never any sense that she's lost much of the power she would normally yield over the parking-lot prince who watches over everyone's BMWs. The single-setting premise has the potential for a tight, punchy little genre film along the lines of this year's underrated Vacancy. But the sense of danger quickly fades, and P2 then becomes a protracted wait for the natural order of things to be restored.
Up late closing million-dollar deals on Christmas Eve, corporate raider Rachel Nichols is the last to leave her Park Avenue office building en route to a belated appearance at a family function in Jersey. Without an escort, she heads down to the parking deck (the level is the source of film's title) and finds her car won't start. Enter Wes Bentley, a creepily ingratiating security guard who offers to help, but only for as long as it takes to seal off the exits and drag her into his Level One lair. While keeping Nichols chained to a chair, Bentley tries to woo her with red wine and a microwavable Christmas feast, but she's understandably less than charmed by his advances. As it becomes clearer to Bentley that Stockholm Syndrome isn't going to kick in any time soon, his behavior goes from erratic to just plain cuckoo, and Nichols has to fight for her life.
Directed by first-timer Franck Khalfoun and co-written by Alexandre Aja—who's been leading a new vanguard of extreme French horror with Haute Tension and his potent Hills Have Eyes remake—P2 doesn't have the grisly intensity of Aja's other work, in spite of a few moments of cartoonish gore. The tone, partly intended and partly not, is really more comedic, because Bentley's character remains at much at war with his pathetic insecurities as he is with Nichols' heart and mind. Best known as the sensitive kid from American Beauty who thinks the windswept plastic bag is beautiful, Bentley is impossible to take seriously; at times, he resembles Rupert Pupkin in Martin Scorsese's The King Of Comedy. He should be a menacing figure, but instead, he's a figure of fun, and the comic relief eventually has little to relieve.