Hide and Seek is better left in the Lost and Found. This psychological thriller puts the audience through an emotional meat-grinder-to no visible avail beyond tossing a fast plot curve from left field in the closing minutes of play. The studio has gone to some lengths to keep the surprise intact and the spoilers at bay, but the truth is, the movie starts out as one thing and suddenly jumps the tracks into something else. Then there's the question of credibility that this abrupt switch invites.

Robert De Niro and Dakota Fanning headline this mechanical, empty exercise as a father and daughter in the advanced stages of grieving. Eleven-year-old Emily was traumatized by discovering her mother dead in the bathtub, wrists slashed. Her dad David, a licensed psychologist, prescribes a large dose of country life, removing her from the Manhattan hurly-burly and plopping them both down in a rambling old house in upstate New York.

In record time, Emily has conjured up an imaginary friend to fill in the gap. Only she can see this Charlie, and that's perhaps a blessing, considering that the people we can see are spooky enough-the couple next door mourning the loss of their daughter, a creepy realtor given to mysterious house calls, a passing-through divorcée and a slightly twitchy sheriff.

Director John Polson (Swimfan) takes all of the above at a stately, almost numbingly slo-mo pace, and photographer Dariusz Wolski provides some crystal-clear, nuance-rich visual details that give the film a certain emotional gravity to carry it through its last-reel loop-de-loop.

It doesn't, alas. Ari Schlossberg's technically "original" screenplay pursues what it pretends to be a plausible progression until it snaps and-before you can say "Where's Charlie?"-descends into slasher-movie absurdities, leaving the audience feeling had.

The talent roped into, and tied down by, the script's by-the-numbers confines rate better. One wonders why De Niro bothered. He walks through another one. Surely, his bag of tricks isn't depleted. In contrast, Fanning puts him-and, indeed, all of her elders-to shame with an expertly eerie performance. She checks "the cutes" at the door and gives a straight-on, incisive performance that belies her young years. Her work is the best thing in the film, and it actually almost makes you believe the inanities the script starts throwing at you.

Amy Irving as Fanning's quickly doomed mom does well with a fleeting cameo, coming back for some additional-information flashbacks. Elisabeth Shue of Leaving Las Vegas fame, back on the screen after almost five years off, is also good to see under any circumstances-even when hemmed in by the two-dimensional divorcée character who's around to give De Niro romantic interest and to tick off the jealous Fanning. Robert John Burke and the gifted Melissa Leo as the couple next door and Dylan Baker as the sheriff are plainly overqualified for the red-herring stick figures that they are required to play.

Like the same-named children's game (Charlie's favorite), Hide and Seek is a lame pretense.