By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
4:10 PM EDT, September 19, 2013
Like the kidnapping at the tortured heart of "Prisoners," once this chilling thriller about a parent's worst nightmare grabs you, it refuses to let go.
Even if the film wasn't coming out just months after the May rescue of three kidnapped women in Cleveland, held for a decade by a madman, we know the real world has monsters far more frightening than any Hollywood can manufacture.
Reality informs "Prisoners" at every turn. French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski keep the tightly constructed terror twisting by holding it close.
There are excellent performances from a well-seasoned cast including Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Maria Bello and Melissa Leo. But the linchpins for the devastation wrought in the film are Hugh Jackman as an anguished father, Jake Gyllenhaal as the frustrated detective with whom he locks horns, and Paul Dano as the man suspected of snatching two young girls.
"Prisoners" begins innocently enough on Thanksgiving Day. Keller Dover (Jackman) and Franklin Birch (Howard) are lifelong friends. Now married with children, they live just down the block from each other in a Pennsylvania suburb where kids play carefree. Dinner is at the Birches — good friends, good food, good times.
Savor it. This is the last good moment the filmmakers allow.
It is late afternoon. The teenagers, Ralph Dover (Dylan Minnette) and Eliza Birch (Zoe Soul) are collapsed in front of a TV. The adults, Keller and wife Grace (Bello), Franklin and wife Nancy (Davis), are in one of those conversations you imagine they pick up every time they're together.
Six-year-old Anna Dover (Erin Gerasimovich) and 7-year-old Joy Birch (Kyla-Drew Simmons) are bundles of energy, begging to make a toy run to the Dover's house.
And then they are gone.
It takes a while to realize the girls are missing. But panic and fear are fast in coming. That scene — where it first sinks in — has a very "there but for the grace of God" feel. These are watchful parents. Each eventually becomes a template for the ways a child in jeopardy can change you.
A sliver of hope comes in the form of a tenacious detective named Loki (Gyllenhaal). There is also a suspect, Alex Jones (Dano), who is quickly in custody.
And then hope dies.
After 48 hours and no progress, Loki releases Alex over Keller's outraged protest. Jackman, who gives the performance of his career, spends the rest of the film as a desperate father going rogue to save his child.
This is no "Taken," where the dad is a black-ops specialist, schooled in the art of tracking and torturing to find a missing daughter. The people in "Prisoners" are salt-of-the-earth types, not equipped to find their girls and certainly not prepared to cope with the tragedy that is overwhelming them.
A very different sort of family drama first put the director on the map. "Incendies," with its cross-cultural intrigues and Muslim-Christian conflicts, earned an Oscar nomination for foreign language film in 2011. The polish and precision of "Prisoners" should keep Villeneuve there.
Shot under a cold gray sky by acclaimed cinematographer Roger A. Deakins, the mood of despair never lifts. Keller's decision to take matters into his own hands sets the course. He's become convinced Alex is the key.
A strange, shy and nearly nonverbal young man still living with his aunt Holly (Leo), Alex is an easy mark when it comes to villains. So it's not all that hard to get behind Keller's idea to pick up the interrogation the cops dropped.
But things go badly almost from the start when Alex doesn't break as Keller thought he would. The larger question that begins to gather force as the action evolves is whether Keller is right to do what he is doing — even if Alex is involved, even with the children's lives at stake. Or worse, what if Keller is wrong about Alex entirely?
The filmmakers don't make it easy to stay on Keller's side. Horrific brutality and unrelenting torture become the state of play as the desperation rises and the days tick past.
At home, Grace slips into a permanent haze of pills, barely able to get out of bed, much less notice her husband's long absences. It is left to the Birches to stand as the conflicted conscience of the film. Screenwriter Guzikowski tucks endless moral dilemmas into very smart dialogue as they grapple with what Keller is doing and their role in it.
Like everyone else, Det. Loki is a complex man with a lot on his mind. That he occupies any space on-screen is a credit to Gyllenhaal, who continues to power through the darker roles he's favored lately. The actor tempers Loki's confidence with a twinge of doubt — about Alex, about Keller, about himself — and in doing so keeps his cop interesting. Meanwhile, Dano seems born to play damaged souls, though he's never reached such animalistic levels before.
Jackman, though, is unforgettable as the father whose certainty never wavers. You feel Keller's resolve harden, his anguish deepen and his spine stiffen. Not even the actor's Oscar-nominated performance in "Les Misérables" is as compelling.
Exciting, terrifying, worrisome stuff saturates every second of "Prisoners," holding you captive, keeping you guessing until the bitter end.
MPAA rating: R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout
Running time: 2 hours, 26 minutes
Playing: In general release
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