Sept. 20--"Prisoners" is a crackling-good thriller that works as both a crafty whodunit and as the most intense movie of the year. Leaving the theater, you feel drained, but in a good way.
When you feel your arms relax from having tensed up, and you feel your fingers release their grip on the arm of the chair -- or of the person next to you -- that is one of those "This is why we go to the movies" feelings.
"Prisoners" works on other levels, as well. From standout performances to moral complexities, the picture reminds of David Fincher's "Seven" but without being quite that grim or that gory.
The story is every parent's nightmare as neighbors gather for Thanksgiving, and a pair of little girls go outside to play, and they seemingly vanish.
The movie expertly goes through the succession of deduction -- they're not in the house, they're not outside, they're not at their friends' house, they're gone -- to that sickening realization.
The film takes place in a decidedly Anytown, America locale -- as in this could happen anywhere -- and the tale is largely a two-man character study between a desperate father and a police detective doing the best he can.
Hugh Jackman embodies a blue-collar role unlike anything he's ever portrayed to play Keller Dover, a contractor/repair man with survivalist tendencies (his basement is packed with supplies) and who lives by a code he instills in his teen son: "Be ready" to take control of a situation if needed.
Countering him is Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki, an investigator whose sense of justice would make him a kindred spirit to the patrolman that Gyllenhaal mastered in last year's excellent "End of Watch."
Of course, a father whose 6-year-old daughter and little friend have been abducted and a detective attempting to methodically unlock the evidence of a crime are in different places emotionally.
Confusion reigns early in this type of situation, making many who are close to the crime "prisoners," in a way, of their fears (What's happened to them?), their guilt (What could I have done differently?) and even their religious beliefs (How much forgiveness can you afford a sinner?).
This is certainly the case when a suspect is identified. Paul Dano ("There Will Be Blood"), dressed in ill-fitting clothes and giant glasses and pegged as a low-intelligence loner, looks like a stereotypical pedophile, making him an easy "He must be the guy!" target for the seething father when police don't have enough evidence to keep him locked up.
Jackman has rarely been so forceful or affecting in his acting as when he takes the law into his own hands regarding Dano's character.
He makes the brutal interrogation/torture something more than the vigilantism of a disconnected "Death Wish" revenge saga: This is personal, and it is intimate, and it will resonate with anyone who serves as a protector of little children.
Keller is so certain that he's torturing his daughter's captor that he rationalizes his actions to clear his conscience, and yet his faith calls out to his better nature more than once.
Although this "How would we react" morality play adds depth to the storyline, there is never a let-up in the thrill-ride nature of the film, directed as the English-language debut by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve.
If his new film creates fans, they should find his 2011 foreign-language Oscar nominee "Incendies," with a mystery every bit as searing as this wonder.
There are certainly conventions among the film's elements, from red herrings neatly placed throughout -- a defrocked priest, another missing child, a new suspect, a puzzle that must be solved to find answers -- but "Prisoners" makes many of the stock moments feel fresh with urgency.
Jackman is superb, and Gyllenhaal is simply exceptional (adopting a nervous tic when his character is excited during moments of discovery, a brilliant, believable move). Also very good are Dano in his creepiness, Melissa Leo in her stern nature as the suspect's mother, and Terrence Howard as the other girl's father, shaken by his loss and by Jackman's character in torture mode.
The most satisfying element is how Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski ("Contraband") pile one "aha!" moment on top of another. Just when you think you've figured it all out, you find new surprises, much to your delight and lasting until the final image of the film.
The lasting legacy of an exceptional thriller is to not only be surprised on the first viewing, but also to realize the picture offers qualities that can be enjoyed on repeat screenings.
"Prisoners" is that movie. You can pry your fingers off the armrest now.
(c)2013 Tulsa World (Tulsa, Okla.)
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