'Prisoners': Strong cast carries drama
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
This movie begins with Hugh Jackman speaking in an American accent, intoning the Lord's Prayer in voice-over. The black screen cuts to a shot of a deer in the woods, and we see that Hugh Jackman's standing next to a young man in those woods, and his character is saying the prayer as the young man is preparing to shoot down that deer.
Don't worry. (Too much.) The movie, "Prisoners," gets better. Jackman plays Keller Dover, here representing that staple of contemporary American cinema and television, the Essentially Good Man With Some Serious Issues. The big issues do not come to the fore until later on this Thanksgiving Day. With venison in hand, Keller and family -- his wife, Grace (Maria Bello), said son, Ralph (Dylan Minnette), and adorable daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) -- decamp to their neighbors' place for dinner. The Birches, played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, have two kids of their own, both daughters, one Anna's age (Kyla Drew Simmons), the other (Zoe Soul) a teen. So the kids go for a walk, as they will in a Pennsylvania suburb on a nice fall day, and the younger kids are intrigued by a seemingly empty RV parked in front of one of their street's houses. And soon the holiday is a disaster, as the two little girls disappear as soon as the teens' backs are turned.
It's all by-the-book at first: Understandably panicked parents contact police, a competent investigator named Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal, and, yeah, about that name ...) tries to keep everyone calm. Then, in a scene that's harrowing but not necessarily for the reason viewers will expect, the RV is found. Its driver is of course the natural suspect, but not only are there no traces of the missing girls in the RV itself, young Alex Jones (Paul Dano) is what they used to call a half-wit, incapable of committing the crime, at least by Loki's reckoning. And so, with no evidence to link him to the disappearances, Jones is set free.
And it's here that Keller Dover's demons take over. He kidnaps Jones and keeps him holed up at a location that is initially undisclosed to the people around him. His scheme is to "hurt him until he talks." He soon initiates the reluctant Birch into his plan. And together they hurt Jones an awful lot (the torture scenes are hard to take), and Jones does not talk. Until he does -- and when he does, the things he says don't seem to make sense. To shed light on them, Dover adopts more subterfuges as he pays visits to Alex's adoptive aunt (Melissa Leo). In the meantime, Loki looks up several alleys, none of which are as blind as they may have seemed in the first place. Loki's path will converge with Keller's, of course.
This thriller is not really a "procedural." It's not meant to be, and if it were, it'd be in trouble, since it's got plausibility holes you could pilot a zeppelin through. Not just in the particularities of the narrative and its setting: The movie seems to take place in a world without lawyers, and one in which it is almost always raining. No, as you might have gathered from the above," Prisoners" is more in the line of allegory than realistic thriller. (The script is by Aaron Guzikowski, who also wrote the rather more conventional "Contraband.") The director, Canadian Denis Villeneuve, is no stranger to the purposeful cinematic parable, and his last film, "Incendies," was so portentous in its straining for heavy-osity that it might have made my "Worst of 2010" list, had I compiled one. But I have to give him credit here. With the help of his excellent cast and a great tech crew (the lensing from Roger Deakins is particularly acute and disciplined), he casts a spell that keeps "Prisoners" gut-wrenchingly engaging for all of its two-and-a-half-hour running time. The lesson of the picture will likely keep post-screening conversations going for a long time before the plot-hole maneuverings start. Or not.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.