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"PRISONERS"
(2013) (Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Dramatic Thriller: A father goes to extreme measures to try to find and save his young daughter who's been abducted.
PLOT:
Keller Dover (HUGH JACKMAN) is a carpenter who lives in a Pennsylvania town with his wife, Grace (MARIA BELLO); their teenage son, Ralph (DYLAN MINNETTE); and his much younger sister, Anna (ERIN GERASIMOVICH). After a day of hunting with Ralph, Keller -- who lives by the mantra of praying for the best but preparing for the worst -- walks with his family over to the neighbors' house for Thanksgiving.

Like the Dovers, Franklin (TERRENCE HOWARD) and Nancy Birch (VIOLA DAVIS) have two kids -- teenager Eliza (ZOE SOUL) and her younger sister, Joy (KYLA DREW SIMMONS). After the meal, the young girls head over to Anna's house to play, but when Keller later checks up on them, Ralph and Eliza -- who've been there the entire time -- report that they never arrived.

The increasingly worried families search the neighborhood to no avail and end up calling the police. The only immediate suspect is Alex Jones (PAUL DANO), a young man with the IQ of a 10-year-old who's driving the RV that Ralph earlier saw parked in the neighborhood.

With Detective Loki (JAKE GYLLENHAAL) now on the scene, he and other cops approach Alex's RV and arrest him after he tries to flee. But with no sign of the girls or any other evidence and considering his mental state, the police release Alex into the custody of his aunt, Holly Jones (MELISSA LEO), who lives out in a remote section of town.

Outraged about the release, Keller confronts Alex who whispers something that further convinces Dover that the young man is responsible. As a result, he takes matters into his own hands and kidnaps Alex, taking the young man to a long deserted house with the belief that he can torture the truth out of him.

As Det. Loki continues working the case, including briefly giving chase to a suspicious looking man, Bob Taylor (DAVID DASTMALCHIAN), seen at a neighborhood vigil, Keller increasingly pushes his own boundaries and morals as he's determined to do whatever it takes to find his daughter.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Everyone's familiar with the old metaphorical saying about not judging a book by its cover. The same can obviously be applied to movies and their display posters. But I'm far more impressed that studios and/or their marketing firms can make bad to mediocre films look compelling, exciting or whatever the desired emotional reaction might be through their TV commercials and longer movie trailers.

Of course, some clever non-industry folks have proved just how false those can be by creating their own trailers from footage taken entirely from certain movies, thus resulting in "The Shining" looking like a feel good romantic comedy and, more recently, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" coming off as a tense, action-thriller.

That said, upon seeing the commercials and trailer for "Prisoners," I can't say I was terribly impressed and thus not overly desirous of seeing the film. After all, despite the terrific cast (Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, etc.) it looked like your boilerplate dramatic thriller featuring a father going to extreme measures to get his abducted kid back from some likely serial psychopath, all while the police simultaneously try to solve the crime.

In a nutshell, that is the film, at least on the surface. But the way in which director Denis Villeneuve (whose 2011 film "Incendies" was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar) handles the story written by screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski ("Contraband") and allows the performers to run with the material, all captured by cinematographer Roger Deakins results in one of the first, heavy-duty award contenders of the 2013 movie season. While it has a few minor problems (mainly in its too-long running time), it's otherwise a well-constructed thriller with just as much going on below the surface as occurs on it.

Shot by ten-time Oscar nominee Deakins ("Skyfall," "True Grit") in various near monotone shades to represent the grey areas in which many of the characters operate, the story is about damaged people doing things that might be intellectually understandable but otherwise will likely come off as uncomfortable for most viewers.

The most obvious, of course, is Jackman's protagonist who lives by the mantra of praying for the best for preparing for the worst. Despite that and his end-of-the-world stockpile in the basement, Keller can't prevent his young daughter (Erin Gerasimovich) from being kidnapped with her fellow young friend (Kyla Drew Simmons). His wife (Maria Bello) reminds him of such, weepily stating he promised he'd protect their family. Spurred by that, a past trauma in his life (that's revealed later in the film) and the police letting go of the mentally impaired suspect (a terrific Paul Dano), he takes matters into his own hands.

Then there's the police detective (Gyllenhaal) who isn't getting the support he needs from his captain or the rest of the force and thus makes his a one-man quest to find the missing girls. While we don't ever know much about the character beyond his workaholic status (which is the point), his constant look and labored blinking of his eyes and an opening scene featuring him having Thanksgiving by himself in an otherwise empty restaurant really tells us all we need to know.

The parents (played by Howard and Davis) of the other missing child enter their own world of gray once they learn of Keller's modus operandi, while the suspect's aunt (the always great Melissa Leo) is another damaged soul due to the untimely death of her son from cancer sometime in the past as well as her husband leaving home five years ago and never returning.

All of that develops and/or is revealed in Guzikowski's strong and smart screenplay that takes a familiar storyline and related thematic materials and puts a fresh spin on them. Sure, there are some red herrings that pop up now and then, but they're handled with enough scripting aplomb that they don't remotely stink up the place or distract the viewer with any sort of nagging questions starting with the likes of "But..." or "If..."

Overall, I give a tip of my screenwriting cap to the scribe for the way in which he introduces elements that feel integral to the current plot thrust at the given point but ultimately end up being pieces of a jigsaw puzzle plot that ultimately all comes together in the third act. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Villeneuve keeps the suspense tight at the right moments or that his cast delivers strong to terrific performances.

It could be argued that this is some of Jackman and Gyllenhaal's best work to date, while Dano and Leo could also earn some nomination love come award time season. That said, the film isn't for the squeamish as it features scenes of domestic torture and goes down some of the same dark alleys of the human psyche that the likes of "Se7en" and "The Silence of the Lambs" featured so many years ago.

While I would have preferred a slightly trimmed-down running time (it clocks in at a bit more than two and a half hours), I was never bored, and despite the familiar plot, I was intrigued and invested in the characters from start to finish. Thank goodness the film is far more than the boilerplate offering the commercials and trailers advertised. In this case, the end result is so much more than the cover. Accordingly, "Prisoners" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.




Reviewed September 16, 2013 / Posted September 20, 2013


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