‘Prisoners’ provides a layer of complexity

Published 10:26 am Wednesday, October 2, 2013

By Chuck Lilley

The relentless intensity of “Prisoners” is not for the fainthearted — a warning to film-goers with pacemakers. With a run-time in excess of two hours, the nail-biting crime thriller takes audiences to the edge of their seats and provides little emotional relief until the concluding scenes.

What unfolds is a riveting, well-acted film that revolves around family nightmare-child abduction. “Prisoners” does convey the obvious, irretrievable damage that such a heinous crime sets in motion. More alarmingly, the film sends a deeper signal in which emotional havoc can obscure wrongful action, even within principled families.

In the lead role as a kidnapped victim’s aggrieved parent, Hugh Jackman displays a fury and power reminiscent of his Oscar-nominated performance in “Les Miserables” (minus the singing). He is blue-collar contractor Keller Dover, a loving father of two young children within a middle-class Pennsylvania family. Slowed by the pace of the criminal investigation into his daughter’s kidnapping, Dover’s value system and admirable singleness of purpose give way to vigilante-style justice and unrestrained rage.

Besides Jackman, “Prisoners” benefits from an outstanding, experienced cast. Jake Gyllenhaal (“October Sky,” “Jarhead,” “Brokeback Mountain”) provides a grown-up performance as a tattooed, determined police detective, who has never failed to solve an abduction case. His subdued Detective Loki is emotionally conflicted by police professionalism and overwhelming sympathy toward the two families. It is a difficult balance to sustain as an actor, and many never develop the depth of craft that Gyllenhaal displays.

Viola Davis (Academy Award nominations for “Doubt” and “The Help”) as an overwhelmed mother to one of the two abducted children, and Melissa Leo (Best Supporting Actress, “The Fighter”) as the alleged suspect’s quirky mom, are two acting heavyweights who provide depth and timely intensity to their characters. Terrence Howard, (“Red Tails,” “The Butler”) is highly visible as Davis’ on-screen spouse whose boyhood friendship with Keller Dover becomes severely tested.

Canadian Director Villeneuve (“Incendies”) and Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (“Contraband”) generate a high level of suspense by keeping audiences guessing over the identity of the perpetrator. The script cleverly creates several paths of uncertain outcomes until the finale. The lack of timely police back-up and forensics in probable scenes occasionally stretches the credible, but the inclusions would lessen overriding tension and threaten the film’s even pace. The disturbingly dark cinematography of Roger Deakins (daylight scenes are always gray, night-time scenes and rain are plentiful) adeptly reinforces the dire predicament of the central characters.

“Prisoners” provides a layer of moral complexity that is atypical of most Hollywood crime thrillers. Despite their extreme emotional pain, Dover’s close friends recognize and are shaken by his unlawful behavior. Because he appears to be on to something however, they delay taking rightful, corrective action. Audiences will be tempted to rationalize Dover’s self-appointed brand of justice, a temptation made easier by Jackman’s superb ability to project misguided sincerity.

The movie recently opened nationwide to blockbuster ratings and is now playing at most local theaters. In light of the Ariel Castro kidnappings in Cleveland, this film’s release is remarkably timely. Again, the suspenseful “Prisoners” is not for the faint of heart.

Chuck’s rating: Four thumbs up (out of five)