The early scenes of Prisoners resonate with a stark naturalism. But all too soon, this every-parents-nightmare thriller plods into a grim and grueling labyrinth of police legwork, serial killers, red herrings and MacGuffins. Oh, what might have been.
By JON NICCUM
Special to The Star
At the center of it all is Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a devout Catholic who loves his family and his guns. On Thanksgiving he carts his wife, Grace (Maria Bello), and their children to visit the neighbors, Franklin and Nancy (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis). Small talk turns to a frenzy when the couples realize their youngest daughters, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons), are missing.
A sketchy RV spotted where the children were last seen leads Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to apprehend driver Alex (Paul Dano), whose long greasy hair and 70s aviator glasses suggest he dressed as a pedophile for Halloween. But a lack of evidence compels the cops to let the mentally challenged Alex go, forcing papa Keller into action.
For his first English-language picture, Quebec director Denis Villeneuve leans on gifted cinematographer Roger Deakins (a 10-time Oscar nominee), who captures everything in muted winter tones.
Keller kidnaps the suspect, bringing in the reluctant Franklin as an accomplice. Despite no concrete indication of guilt, they torture Alex on a hunch he might reveal where the girls are.
Jackman delivers some of his strongest work in these scenes, as a man whose paternal desperation trumps religious conviction and common sense. Here, the movie feels as if its going to become a morality play a la Extremities about the spiritual fallout when good people get pushed too far.
But this is merely the amuse-bouche by Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband). The film goes downhill until the final third has more in common with three-card monte street hustle than nuanced character drama.
The aggravation and grief the actors relay so well give way to another cheap chase scene. The movies sick climax solves at least one of the primary questions. It also carelessly introduces a batch more. To paraphrase an NFL official, the plot should be overturned upon further review. Villeneuve all but abandons the supporting characters (remember Franklin?), leaving Jackman and Gyllenhaal to do the heavy lifting.
The men share a rain-soaked scene in a parked car outside a liquor store that showcases the storys potential. The crumbling blue-collar family man and the loner detective, who sports a neck tattoo and an unspecified blinking tic, almost come to blows while venting their collective frustration.
Thats how the audience feels as this 21/2-hour ordeal winds down.