By Jack Tuthill
Awards season is officially closing in, and filmgoers who caught “Prisoners” this past weekend were not disappointed.
This grim, powerful and memorable film fittingly kicked off the 2013 fall season.
“Prisoners” opens with Keller and Grace Dover, played by Hugh Jackman (“Les Miserables,” “X-Men”) and Maria Bello (“A History of Violence,” “Beautiful Boy”), corralling their two children, Anna and Dylan, for a Thanksgiving meal at their best friend’s house down the block. When they arrive we are introduced to Nancy and Franklin Birch, played by Viola Davis (“The Help,” “Doubt”) and Terrence Howard (“Crash,” “Iron Man”) and their two young kids, Joy and Eliza.
The families eat turkey, laugh, play music and watch football. They are unaware of the dread that is soon to follow. Near the end of the evening the four adults allow their two youngest daughters, Anna and Joy, to run down the street to the Dover household.
Hours pass and the kids never return. A small search party is formed, but the children are nowhere to be found. They have been taken.
Dylan fortunately saw the girls playing on an RV earlier in the afternoon. His description gives the police somewhere to start. Enter Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). He is a tattooed, twitchy, single cop with a perfect case record. Loki promises the families that he will find their daughters.
Ultimately, Loki locates the RV and arrests a quiet, filthy, creepy, dim young man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano). Alex can barely speak and is frightened beyond belief, but there is not a single shred of evidence pointing to Alex as a suspect other than his identified RV.
Days pass and Keller begins to become enraged with Loki’s inability to obtain answers from Alex, who has been released. Keller must decide whether to take matters into his own hands or let Loki do his job. He chooses the former and kidnaps Alex.
Keller’s anger throughout the film is so fierce that you can literally see the veins under his skin longing to burst. His tone is low, loud and unrelenting. Keller wants justice. He will stop at nothing to find his little girl. Grace, however, copes by popping pills and sleeping all day.
Franklin and Nancy Birch have accepted the fact that their daughter is potentially in the river, buried in the woods or lying lifeless in a basement. They give Keller the go-ahead to torture Alex to obtain a resolution.
Everything is not what it seems, however, as Loki begins to unravel the complex mystery. He finds himself in a maze of suspects, clues and lies.
Nothing about this film is easy to watch, but this is a story that needed to be told. Thankfully, French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve treats the material with an effective grasp on the terrifying material.
Jackman turns in his best performance of his career. He is ferocious, brutal and violent. You can feel his character’s pain through his acting, which is hard to accomplish. Even if you do not agree with Keller’s moral code, you have to admire his courage and the depths he is willing to cast himself into.
Gyllenhaal’s Loki is a character to pull for. Loki’s desperation is different than Keller’s. He is the one who has to live with the results of the case, no matter the outcome. Gyllenhaal’s facial expressions, tone of voice and body language are tremendous. His performance is among his very best.
Davis, Howard and Bello are all fine actors in their own rights, but the screen is dominated by Jackman and Gyllenhaal.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins (“No Country for Old Men,” “Skyfall”) has been nominated for 10 Oscars, which is stunning, but has never prevailed. His work on “Prisoners” is nothing short of flawless. The breathtaking fall Pennsylvania scenery, an ominous mood, a real sense of terror and a particularly incredible car chase are all thanks to Deakins’ clever photography.
“Prisoners” holds no punches. It may crush your spirit but your eyes will be glued to the screen. It is a chess match. It is brutal. It is unmerciful. It is a tremendous fall treat. See it.