Film

Prisoners

Little girl lost

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The wages of sin, guilt, vengeance and redemption weigh heavy on the characters of Prisoners, a spellbinding, sensationally effective thriller with a complex moral center that marks a grand-slam English-language debut for the gifted Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve. Powered by an unusually rich script and career-best performances from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, this tale of two Pennsylvania families searching for their kidnapped daughters sustains an almost unbearable tension for two-and-a-half hours of screen time, satisfying as both a high-end genre exercise and a searing adult drama of the sort Hollywood almost never makes anymore.

The movie announces a measured, quietly confident tone right from the opening scene of a father-son deer-hunting trip, the first of many images of predators pursuing their prey. “Be ready,” says the father, Pennsylvania carpenter Keller Dover (Jackman), to the teenage boy, a crucifix dangling from the rearview mirror, a late autumn chill hanging in the air. Back at home, where Keller’s wife, Grace (Maria Bello), and 6-year-old daughter, Anna, safely await his return, the basement is stocked with enough emergency provisions for a nuclear holocaust. All the canned goods in the world, however, cannot shield the Dovers from what is about to happen next.

Theirs is the kind of quaint suburban street where people walk over to the neighbor’s house for Thanksgiving dinner and feel relatively insulated from the world’s violent ills. Yet it is during just such a Thanksgiving that Anna wanders off unsupervised along with 7-year-old Joy, the daughter of family friends Nancy and Franklin Birch (Viola Davis and Terrence Howard, respectively). By dessert, both have vanished without a trace. The only clue: Earlier in the day, the girls were seen playing around a camper van parked in front of a vacant house down the road.

Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is spending his Thanksgiving alone, flirting with the waitress in a lonely Chinese diner, when he first responds to the case. In the best film-noir manner, rain is sheeting down, and the camera of the great cinematographer Roger Deakins pushes in slowly from behind. Loki, we are told, has never failed to solve a case, though this is at odds with the man’s solemn demeanor, his haunted gaze and the elaborate tattoos jutting out from his collar suggesting reserves of private rage.

The camper van is soon located along with its owner, a gangly, inarticulate man-child named Alex (played to creepy perfection by Paul Dano), who lives with his aunt (Melissa Leo) in the kind of rundown, cluttered tract house where serial killers and other movie deviants tend to reside. But awareness of such familiar tropes—and awareness of our awareness of them—is one of Prisoners’ canny strengths. So it turns out that Alex is not the kidnapper—or at least, that there’s no physical evidence tying him to the scene—and the police are forced to let him go. Which is when Keller, who’s as sure as we are that Alex is guilty, takes matters into his own hands, abducting the suspect and chaining him up in an abandoned apartment building that belonged to his father. The movie’s tally of kidnappers now stands at two.

And the puzzle of Prisoners has only just begun to assemble. Following a lead to the home of an elderly priest, Loki discovers a rotting corpse in a hidden cellar. Then, at exactly the one-hour mark, another shifty young man appears on the scene, triggering a whole new set of suspicions. All the while, Alex sits in hock, violently tortured and interrogated by Keller (who tells his wife he’s off helping the police) in an effort to discern the girls’ whereabouts.

Jackman has simply never been better than as this true believer forced to question his beliefs. Effortlessly, the Australian actor projects a solid, rugged Americanness, the acme of a man whose home is his castle and who sees himself as his family’s protector. It is a performance void of vanity or the desire to be loved by the audience, and moment to moment it is exhilarating to watch. In just a handful of scenes each, Bello and Davis suggest the full, inexpressible weight of motherly grief. Leo, given a role rife with opportunities to ham it up, instead plays things with the sober conviction of a disappointed life, another standout in a movie with nary a squandered performance in the mix.

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