A young woman runs down the street. She's clearly frightened; her hair is disheveled, her shoes missing. There's blood on her hands. A neighbor takes her in.
The next thing we know, her hair is shorter, blonder, and she's on a bus from Boston … heading south. But a determined Boston police officer is hot on her trail, stopping busses as they leave the terminal and scanning surveillance videos in an effort to discern where she's fled to. All he knows for sure is that she headed toward Atlanta. Where she might have gone from there is anywhere.
At a stop in coastal Southport, N.C., the woman gets off the bus … and doesn't get back on. Something about the small town's quaint charm—not to mention the charm of a kind man she meets briefly at a dockside convenience store—captures her imagination. Perhaps this could be the place for a fresh start.
The woman, who calls herself Katie, lands a waitress job at Ivan's Fish Shack. As for that kind man she met, well, Alex is a widower who lost his wife to cancer several years before and is raising two young children, Josh and Lexie, as best he can on his own.
Chemistry quietly kindles between Katie and Alex. But her dark, unresolved secret makes honest relationship with anyone virtually impossible. Which is why she rents a ramshackle cabin in the woods, as far from town as reasonably possible. There, she's befriended by a young woman named Jo, who encourages her not to shut herself off emotionally from Alex.
Ever so slowly, love blossoms. And ever so slowly, the cop who's committed to finding her at any cost comes closer to discovering the whereabouts of her newfound safe haven. The only question is whether he'll find her before Alex spies the "wanted" poster of Katie—for first degree murder.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
There's plenty of goodhearted kindness in Southport, and it flows in multiple directions. Alex tells Katie he'll do whatever is necessary to protect her and provide a safe place for her. Katie quickly develops a tender, mother-like bond with Alex's young daughter, Lexie. And Katie also finds encouragement in her friendship with Jo, a lifelong Southport resident who dreams of travel and adventure. Indeed, Southport represents a kind of idealized small-town Southern hospitality, full of residents who look out for one another. At one point Jo tells Katie, "You're going to have to learn that if you live south of the Mason-Dixon Line, people are just gonna give you stuff." Jo encourages her friend, "The great thing is, life is full of second chances."
Also looking out for Katie's interests is a neighbor back in Boston named Mrs. Feldman. She takes Katie in as she runs away from her abusive husband, helping her cut and color her hair before fleeing south. And when the police officer hunting Katie, a man named Tierney, tries to bully and intimidate Mrs. Feldman into an illegal confession, she admirably resists.
By the time he starts harassing Mrs. Feldman, you see, Tierney has been stripped of his badge, and we discover that his pursuit of Katie is driven by dark personal motives—motives far removed from any concern for justice. Thus, most of the resistance he faces from both his fellow officers and citizens too comes off as completely justified, not a thwarting of police business. (But I'll still note some of the lying that's done in "Other Negative Elements" below.)
When the dangerously unstable officer finally finds her, Katie sacrificially tries to lure him away from Lexie, lest even more people get hurt. And for the first time in her life, she finds the strength and courage to face him down and fight back when he attacks her.
It turns out that Alex's deceased wife had written letters to her children before she died, as well as one to the woman she thought her husband would eventually meet. The letter to Katie encourages her to be a good wife to Alex and mother to her kids, to "make them laugh, hold them when they cry, to stand up for them, and to teach them right from wrong. … I hope that one day our family is whole again, hope that somehow I'm there with all of you."
Jo warns Katie that Tierney is in town and looking for her by way of a dream—our first clue that Jo is not actually who or what she appears to be. Serving as more cinematic symbol and/or personification than anything spiritual, ultimately we learn that she's a benevolent ghost who only Katie can see.
Beyond that startling "supernatural" revelation, the movie avoids all things spiritual, short of a "God bless America" banner and a song lyric that's either reverent or profane, depending on how you hear it.
After a slow courtship, Alex and Katie eventually kiss—very passionately, with her wrapping her legs around him. Once the kissing starts, it's not long before they consummate their relationship. We see Katie's bare back and side as the couple is in bed. We see a bit of sexual movement before the camera zooms in on their ecstatic facial expressions. A later scene implies that they're moving toward cohabitation perhaps a bit faster than they are marriage.
Two notes about this couple's sexual union: 1) It's deeply romanticized here, proffered sympathetically due to the abuse Katie suffered and the fact that Alex lost his wife to cancer. 2) While it's implied for much of the film that Katie's husband is dead, in fact he is still alive.
Katie wears tight, cleavage-baring tops for much of the movie. One scene at the beach with Alex and his children shows her in a bikini.
We see scattered dreamlike flashbacks of Katie's husband abusing her. Much more visceral is a sequence in which he slams her about repeatedly before climbing on top of her and choking her. She manages to grasp a steak knife and stab him in the ribs with it; he falls, unconscious, to the floor, and we see blood as Katie flees in shock and horror.
Drunk, Tierney menaces Katie when he finally finds her. He pours gasoline all over Alex's convenience store—with Lexie upstairs. While the fire blazes, he attacks Katie, hitting her repeatedly and slamming her to the ground. (She tries to fight him off, at one point hitting his face and pushing him off the dock and into the water.) It ends when he's shot with his own gun as they wrestle over it.
Alex suffers a rough fall from the upper story of the burning building while saving Lexie. Earlier, Josh falls off the dock and smacks into a boat as he plunges into the water. Katie suffers a spill on her bike.
Crude or Profane Language
Three s-words. God's name is misused a dozen times, once or twice with "d‑‑n." Christ's name is taken in vain twice. We also her a couple of milder profanities, including "h‑‑‑."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Tierney is an alcoholic. We see him drinking wine. And as he pursues Katie, he's drinking vodka from a plastic bottle almost continually, even as he drives. He's clearly intoxicated almost to the point of passing out, but he just keeps on drinking.
Other Negative Elements
Tierney is so determined to catch Katie that he sends out an APB on her saying she's wanted for first-degree murder. (When Tierney's supervisor discovers what he's done, the rogue officer is suspended.) Tierney then breaks into Mrs. Feldman's house, looking for clues to Katie's whereabouts. In a bitter tirade about his job as a police officer, Tierney spews to a fellow detective, "No one's innocent. No one."
People lie to protect Katie, chief among them her neighbor back home and young Lexie.
Safe Haven is perhaps two-thirds romance and one-third intense (sometimes violent) thriller. It is also a very typical Nicholas Sparks story. (He's the author of the novels that have inspired such movies as The Lucky One, Dear John, The Notebook and A Walk to Remember.) Which is to say there's a lot of sweetness mixed into the ever-looming sorrow here. There's also some meaty material living right alongside the romantic fluff. We watch, for example, a severely abused wife finally stand up to her husband, telling him, "You hurt me. You kept hurting me. You need to go … right now!" (And note that the movie makes it crystal clear that when she sticks a knife in his ribs, it's a pure act of self-defense in the midst of him trying to choke the life out of her.)
We also sit and learn about the best way to live life (and face death) at the feet of a mother who refuses to let her illness get in the way of her writing loving letters to her children, one for her daughter on her wedding day, one for her son on his graduation day, etc. As mentioned, she also writes a letter to the unknown woman who will one day be her husband's new bride, telling her that next to her husband and her children, she is the most important person in the world to her because she will be the one who can make her family whole again.
That's some serious stuff … and it's seriously inspiring. How can we not root for an abused young woman on the run and a lonely widower with two adorable kids to get together? Of course we want them to get together.
Which brings us to one point of negativity: On the way to getting together, they wind up in bed. Set aside the emotional tug of the tale, and it's technically adultery …. and quite a bit more than just technically sex outside of marriage. So even as Safe Haven rightly trumpets the glory of second chances and the beauty of broken lives restored, it asks us to overlook an immoral means to that honorable end.