Hugh Jackman, left, confronts Paul Dano in 'Prisoners.'
(Photo: Wilson Webb, Warner Bros. Pictures)
The ever-present grey skies in Prisoners mirror its murky shades of morality.
A somber, twisting and thoroughly engrossing police thriller (* * * 1/2 out of four; rated R; opens Friday nationwide), Prisoners focuses on a decent man who takes the law into his own hands and, in the process, loses his humanity.
Centered on a kidnapping, the plot raises complicated moral questions about how far an anguished person will go for the love of a child. At the same time, it sets up an intricate, horrifying mystery with breathtaking skill.
French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, who made 2010's captivating Oscar-nominatedIncendies, has fashioned a film that is both mainstream and artful. Prisoners is infused with a poetic intensity that's rare in American thrillers. The closest cinematic comparisons would be Zodiac, In the Bedroom and Mystic River.
Rain-streaked visuals by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins intensify the ominous mood.
On a drizzly Thanksgiving Day in suburban Pennsylvania, two families meet for a holiday feast. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) have two children, teenage son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and 6-year-old Anna (Erin Gerasimovich).
The movie opens with a tense scene in which Ralph and his dad go hunting and Ralph shoots his first deer. On the drive home, he looks mildly stricken while his father congratulates him.
The Thanksgiving meal is being held at the home of neighbors Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), who have two children about the same age as the Dovers, teenage Eliza (Zoe Soul) and 7-year-old Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons).
The teen siblings are put in charge of their little sisters, but the girls pop outside to play, and vanish. A festive occasion suddenly becomes a parent's worst nightmare. Suspicions focus on a rusty old RV parked nearby and a creepy-looking neighbor, Alex Jones (Paul Dano).
The taciturn Alex lives with his lonely aunt Holly (Melissa Leo). His haplessness, as well as a comment he mutters, make Alex the prime suspect for the distraught Keller.
Jackman tackles his role with steely ferocity, giving one of the best performances of his career. Full of moral certitude, he clashes with Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who's put in charge of the case.
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Gyllenhaal, who did a fine job as a cop in last year's End of Watch, taps into even deeper reserves of emotion here for the role of a tenacious and decent detective who blinks repeatedly when frustrated, as if trying to hold his personal demons at bay. Torn between his instincts and police procedure, he is nonetheless determined to solve the case.
Both men are single-minded. Keller does his statistical research on how long abducted kids survive and grows furious at the failure of authorities to act swiftly. Blinded by rage, grief and a sense that he has failed in his promise to protect his family, Keller plunges into a desperate search.
Despite some holes in the labyrinthine plot, the film concludes on a hauntingly powerful note. In its unflinching look at mutable morality, the implications extend beyond the personal to the political.
With its grisly realism, Prisoners is much more terrifying than any horror film, simultaneously grueling, spellbinding and contemplative.