Sept. 19--It's easy to get lost in the first hour of "Prisoners," and that's a terrifying thing.
A superb acting ensemble and smart filmmaking choices help to create an honest portrait of struggling middle class America, before their relative serenity is disrupted tragically. Two young girls go missing, and there are no tip-offs in the narrative or performances that suggest whether the ending will be happy or unspeakably sad.
The last 40 minutes betray this truth, in ways that are often perplexing. It's difficult to remember a recent movie that soared so high, before plummeting with a series of bad story choices. But the end result is still a strong piece of cinema, a failure only if you dwell on what might have been.
"Prisoners" begins with a bold touch: A father teaching his son to shoot a deer, but not until he says a Hail Mary. So much subtlety is conveyed in this scene, and the truck ride after, where Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) passes on the family's code of honor to his son Ralph (Dylan Minnette). This scene is packed with information -- Keller is a moral man, an angry man and a little paranoid -- and yet it doesn't feel like obvious exposition.
Nothing in the beginning of the film feels forced or cliched, as we see the Dover family join the Birch family for Thanksgiving, and then watch their lives unravel as a daughter from each family disappears. Traits that we barely noticed in the first scenes are amplified by the experience. Keller and his wife, Grace (Maria Bello), spiral into alcohol and drug abuse. Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) are not prone to action, and their indecision becomes its own liability. The driven lead detective who seemingly has no life (Jake Gyllenhaal) must confront a lonely existence where his self-worth hinges on solving every case.
The twists and turns are initially gripping, especially after an emotionally vacant suspect played by Paul Dano is thrown into the mix, and draws out Keller Dover's capacity for brutality. Jackman is particularly convincing playing against type, in a bad haircut and layers of clothing that hide his matinee looks. He's the type of guy whom a partner might marry for security, knowing that romantic gestures will be few and far between.
Director Denis Villeneuve makes wonderful choices throughout the first two acts. He's aided greatly by perhaps the greatest living American cinematographer, Roger Deakins, once again in top form. But an uneasy feeling creeps up, when some too-obvious clues start to cross the investigator's path. Later, a series of coincidences, lucky and unlucky breaks and flat-out nonsensical decisions by key characters further sabotage the plot.
By the end, you'll swear you ran to the bathroom and missed something -- or nodded off and sleepwalked into another theater. What started out feeling like a Cormac McCarthy novel ends like one of the more far-fetched James Patterson "Alex Cross" thrillers. Running at nearly 2 1/2 hours, "Prisoners" feels oddly incomplete.
How audiences feel about the film depends on their level of pessimism. Was a great movie ruined by poor story choices? Or did the excellent filmmaking rescue the poorly executed finish? Mitigating circumstances in Villeneuve's favor: Even when audiences start to question the logical leaps, the performances and visuals remain first-rate. The movie doesn't feel bloated. And the final scenes are anything but a cop-out.
The resolution may seem like a stretch. But it's terrifying nonetheless.
Peter Hartlaub is The San Francisco Chronicle's pop culture critic. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @PeterHartlaub
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