Hugh Jackman takes his biggest risk as an actor yet -- and succeeds -- as a desperate father in search of his missing 6-year-old daughter and her friend in "Prisoners," a heart-wrenching, morally complex and brutally violent tale that is sure to get audiences buzzing.
The film opens amid the overwhelming hype by critics at the Toronto International Film Festival and Telluride Film Festival, already leading to predictions of a Best Picture Oscar nomination as well as notices for some of the all-star cast. Hype can be damaging though, which led me to be extra vigilant while screening the film -- scanning for clues and finding weaknesses in a twisting plot that some are already likening to director David Fincher's classic crime drama "Seven."
Jackman stars as Keller Dover, a hard-working construction laborer who's driven by his faith in God and survivalist instincts. He's not the sort of guy to sit on his hands when he and wife Grace's (Maria Bello) daughter, Eliza (Zoe Soul), doesn't return from a trip down the block with Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) -- the daughter of friends and neighbors Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrance Howard and Viola Davis).
Suspected in the kidnapping is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who was in the vicinity of the neighborhood with his motor home about the same time the girls disappeared. But with no physical evidence linking Alex to the crime, he is released to the custody of his protective aunt, Holly Jones (Melissa Leo).
Even though the sharp Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned to the case, Keller ignores Loki's pleas to stay calm and let him carry out the investigation -- instead kidnapping Alex to get information out of him about the missing girls, even if he has to resort to torture to do it.
See the trailer for "Prisoners" below.
"Prisoners" succeeds mainly for three reasons: The intense direction by French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, the execution of the roles by a stellar cast, and the expert writing of scribe Aaron Guzikowski.
Employing longtime Coen brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins to help tell the story, Villeneuve paints a dreadful, atmosphere of lost hope, capturing the bleak surroundings of a blustery Pennsylvania town on a Thanksgiving afternoon and the days after. As if the imagined kidnapping of young children isn't already enough to put a pit in the stomach of viewers, Villeneuve wants to make damn sure you're consumed by the film's surroundings.
Jackman plays against his good-guy type with conviction as Dover, creating a confused sense of who you should be rooting for as his angered authoritative figure loses his morals and does some horrible things in a vain effort to find the girls. Howard and Davis create a perfect counter-balance to Jackman as they're let in on Keller's brutal interrogation, which ultimately leaves them conflicted to take his side or turn him in.
Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, creates a huge presence as Loki, an efficient loner of an officer who is not willing to step outside the boundaries as the days and hours tick by without any big new leads in the case. Leo, meanwhile, looks and acts 20 years older as Jones' aunt who maintains Alex's innocence, and blends in seamlessly in one of the film's pivotal roles. Alex, meanwhile is expertly realized by Dano, a man-child who rarely speaks, but conveys his emotions through his looks of dreads and whimpers as Keller tries to extract information from him.
While the big-name actors in "Prisoners" will grab the most attention for the film, don't overlook David Dastmalchian as a shifty, potential suspect who Loki notices at vigil for the girls. Known for his brief but haunting portrayal as the Joker's thug (wearing the Rachel Dawes ID) who was interrogated by District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in "The Dark Knight," Dastmalchian is given much more to work with here in an unnerving portrayal that widens the scope of the case.
As for the screenplay, Guzikowski takes what could have turned into an average, detective procedural film and laces it with some wicked twists, false leads and bitter irony. There is one blatantly obvious clue dropped in the middle of the film that may help you put two-and-two together; but whether you realize it or not, the film still finishes on a strong note when motivations are revealed and certain characters' fates are determined.
There's no question that "Prisoners" is a difficult film to watch, but even at 2 1/2 hours running time, it's still compelling from beginning to end and not easy to shake off after you leave the theater. Whether it lives up to its Oscar promises is yet to be seen, but for now, consider the race is off to a very strong start.
"Prisoners," rated R, 3 1/2 stars out of four.
What other local critics are saying ...
Chris Hewitt of the Pioneer Press gives the film 3 1/2 stars, saying "he can't remember the last time I saw a movie that sustained tension as skillfully as 'Prisoners' does."
Bring Me The News film critic Tim Lammers is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films on “KARE 11 News at 11” and WCCO Radio. As a feature writer, Tim has interviewed well over 1,000 major actors and filmmakers throughout his career and his work is syndicated nationwide.