September 26, 2013

'Prisoners' a well-constructed thriller


---- — Every parent’s worst nightmare becomes one of the year’s best thrillers in “Prisoners.”

Directed by Quebec’s Denis Villeneuve (Oscar-nominated foreign film “Incendies”), the film is dark and morally complex without feeling too manipulative, and features some killer performances.

Primary among these is Hugh Jackman, who stars as Keller Dover, a carpenter, devoted family man and survivalist, whose motto is “be ready.”

Constant readiness, however, doesn’t do much good when his young daughter and her friend wander away from a Thanksgiving meal and come up missing.

The only clue to the disappearance is a dilapidated old RV. The driver is arrested, but without further evidence — and with the police’s belief that the young man is too feeble-minded to have committed the crime — which way can the authorities turn, and more importantly, what can a father do?

Jackman’s Dover tries to remain strong and stoic, but he’s wounded and deteriorating, and feels his only option is to take the law into his own hands. “Prisoners” asks if he is right, and what would we do in the same circumstance.

The film is more than that, though. It’s also an excellent mystery, as Jake Gyllenhaal’s determined and efficient Detective Loki tries to unfold the complicated crime, with very little to go on.

Though the father and the detective want the same essential thing, their methods are vastly different. Jackman, full of seething rage, and Gyllenhaal, frustrated, controlled and suspicious, create some impressive fireworks when they clash.

The rest of the cast is similarly up to the task. Dano is a quiet enigma as the did-he-or-didn’t-he suspect. An unrecognizable Melissa Leo (“Frozen River”) is excellent as his protective aunt, while Terrence Howard and Viola Davis are believable as the parents of the other missing girl. Maria Bello is Stover’s grieving wife, who turns to pharmacology over faith.

Though “Prisoners” isn’t particularly original, it’s very well-constructed and it never drags, despite the 2½-hour length. It’s a film the viewer can’t stop watching, and might not be able to stop thinking about.

Rental Recommendation: Gyllenhaal plays a cartoonist trying to catch a serial killer in “Zodiac.” Grade: B+

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Grade: A

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello

Rated: R (for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout)

Running time: 153 minutes