BY VAN ROBERTS
Watching the disturbing Hugh Jackman child abduction thriller “Prisoners” (**** OUT OF ****) is like rubbernecking at the scene of a car accident. Initially, your curiosity gets the best of you and you gawk. Of course, the sight of the blood and gore sickens you. Nevertheless, you can’t take your eyes off it because it makes you consider your own mortality. “Prisoners” keeps the blood and gore to a minimum, but the nature of the crimes leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Oscar-nominated French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and “Contraband” scenarist Aaron Guzikowski have created a compelling criminal melodrama that shuns the usual Hollywood glitz and glamour. Indeed, the filmmakers accentuate realism at every turn. The squeamish might reconsider seeing this tragic tale. The unwholesome subject of child abduction qualifies as heavyweight material, and “Prisoners” never resorts to humor to lighten the atmosphere. Actually, the dreadful events in this narrative may challenge your ability to enjoy this intense psychological character study. Clocking in at 153 minutes, “Prisoners” is relentless both in its length and depth. I can’t say enough good things about this inspired but unsavory crime drama. The characters stand out boldly from the background. Each emerges with greater depth and irony than Hollywood allows, and Villeneuve generates considerable, white-knuckled suspense. Sometimes, the quietest moments prove to be the most suspenseful. Comparably, “Prisoners” resembles an episode of the CBS-TV crime series “Criminal Minds,” but clean-scrubbed, well-dressed, FBI agents aren’t investigating the crime. The local authorities handle the case and display appalling incompetence. A father turns into a vigilante and passes the point of no return to save his daughter. Nobody in this grim, lurid yarn is without a flaw. You won’t want to be like them because they lose their cool. “Prisoners” is about a lot of good people doing all the wrong things.
When a small-time carpenter, Dover Keller (Hugh Jackman of “The Wolverine”), isn’t in the woods hunting with his son, he dotes on his adorable, six-year old daughter. Anna Dover (Erin Gerasimovich) and her African-American girlfriend, Joy Birch (Kyla Drew Simmons), are playing in their quiet, suburban neighborhood when they notice a recreational vehicle parked on the street. Dover and his best friend Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard of “Iron Man”) and their wives and older children are enjoying a peaceful Thanksgiving dinner when the girls turn up missing. Earlier, Dover had told his son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and Birch’s daughter Eliza (Zoe Borde) to keep tabs on the youngsters. They search the neighborhood but find no traces of either Anna or Joy. Eventually, a police organize a widespread man hunt, with Dover and his son trudging through the woods with an army of other people. Dover’s wife Grace (Maria Bello of “Payback”) has retreated to her bed with pills galore while her husband counts the hours.
Meantime, the police spot the suspicious vehicle near a convenience store, and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal of “End of Watch”) arrives and approaches it with his gun drawn. The driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano of “Cowboys & Aliens”), behaves hysterically at the sight of all the flashing blue lights. Jones tries to drive off the premises. Instead, he careens into the woods and smashes up the vehicle. Loki arrests Alex, but Loki’s police chief superior releases him later because they found no incriminating evidence either on him or in the RV. Enraged at Alex’s early release, Dover confronts him in the parking lot, and the police have to restrain Dover. Later, Dover abducts Alex and tortures him. He demands that Alex reveal the whereabouts of his daughter and her companion. Alex repeatedly tells him that he knows nothing about Anna and Joy. Grimly, Dover devises other ways to torture Alex. Meantime, Detective Loki is on the trail of a bizarre individual who buys children’s apparel despite the fact that he has no children. Moreover, he stores the apparel in locked plastic tubs writhing with snakes. As you can see, nothing about “Prisoners” is lightweight. The scene near the end when Loki careens desperately through traffic to reach the hospital will have you poised on the edge of your seat. One major surprise occurs about three-fourths of the way through “Prisoners” when the identity of the villain who is behind a child abduction ring is divulged. By this time, Franklin and Nancy Birch have visited the site of Dover’s torture chamber and allow him to continue with this disgraceful business.
Hugh Jackman delivers a shattering performance as a father prepared to torture another human if it will prolong his daughter’s life. You’ve never Jackman play a deranged character like Dover Keller. Keller believes devoutly that his actions are appropriate. Moreover, Keller’s closest friends don’t flinch at his merciless interrogation techniques. In essentially supporting roles, Maria Bello, Viola Davis, Terence Howard, Paul Dano, and Melissa Leo all distinguish themselves. As the grieving parents, Bello, Davis, and Howard are far more sympathetic than Jackman’s distraught father. Paul Dano allows his behavior and bizarre appearance do most of his acting for him. Altogether, Dano emerges as one creepy worm of a guy. Ultimately, Jake Gyllenhaal gives the best performance of his career as a detective who struggles to find clues in the disappearance of two little girls from their neighborhood. Suffice to say, although it qualifies as a superior thriller, “Prisoners” will rattle your cage more than the usual movie.