In A Dark Gray Place

The new movie Prisoners goes to very dark places, but it doesn’t take the usual paths, creating both a thriller and a meditation on guilt and punishment.

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a carpenter as well as a survivalist; “Pray for the best but prepare for the worst” is the way he sums up his attitude. He and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) join their friends Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis) for Thanksgiving. Both couples have a teenaged child: the Dover’s son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and the Birch’s daughter Eliza (Zoe Soul Borde). They also have young daughters, Anna Dover (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy Birch (Kyla Drew Simmons). Early in the day when Anna and Joy ask to go outside, Keller insists that Ralph and Eliza accompany them. While walking through the neighborhood, they come upon an old RV and the girls start playing on it. Ralph stops them and as they’re walking away they hear music coming from the RV. Someone’s inside.

After dinner Anna wants Joy to help her look for a whistle she lost in her house. Keller assumes the older kids will accompany them again, but when he starts looking for the girls later he finds Ralph and Eliza downstairs watching TV. They didn’t know the girls had left. The girls aren’t at the Dover house, and the parents begin to search of the neighborhood as their fears grow. Ralph tells Keller about the RV incident, and the parents call the police.

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is having his Thanksgiving alone at a Chinese Restaurant when he receives the call about the disappearance, and the police soon find the RV. The driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), is brought in for questioning but there’s no evidence that the girls were in the RV. Alex’s aunt, Holly Jones (Melissa Leo), whom he lives with, says he wouldn’t hurt anyone, but Keller has a run-in with Alex that convinces him Alex knows where the girls are.

The original script by Aaron Guzikowski has the complexity and twists of a novel all the way through to the last frame. Its one weakness is its portrayal of Loki. Early in the movie Loki tells a distraught Keller to calm down, something the real police are trained not to do because of its confrontational nature. His captain also tells Grace Dover that Loki’s never had an unsolved case. Any detective would say that’s unrealistic – they usually have a stack of open case files on their desks – but even if it were true, telling a victim that would create unrealistic expectations. However, Gyllenhaal’s intense, buttoned-up performance glosses over those minor problems with the script.

The acting throughout is outstanding. Jackman gives one of the best performances of his career as a man driven to do unconscionable things to try to find his daughter. Bello, Davis, and Howard each inhabit their characters beautifully, as do the other supporting characters.

French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve made the Oscar-nominated film Incendies in 2010. Prisoners is his first English-language film, and he’s able to maintain the tension of the story throughout its 2 ½ hour running time. Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall, No Country For Old Men, A Beautiful Mind) creates a cold, wet world of grays and shadows as the background for the film.

This film was in development limbo for a number of years, with actors such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Jessica Chastain, and Mark Walberg rumored to be attached to the project. Directors Bryan Singer and Antoine Fuqua were approached about helming the movie as well. The good news is that the team that eventually made it got it right.

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