Star-studded ‘Prisoners’ is a child abduction nail-biter

WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley reviews the new child abduction thriller "Prisoners."

WASHINGTON – The changing of the seasons often marks a cinematic shift from summer superheroes to autumn nail-biters. It’s time for Hugh Jackman to put away his Wolverine claws for the seriousness of a concerned father, channeling the motives of Liam Neeson’s “Taken,” but with the questionable means of Sean Penn’s “Mystic River,” all in a drizzly blue-collar environment that bleeds “crime thriller.”

“Prisoners” can be hard to watch, hitting way too close to home for those who have ever had a brush with child abduction. But just four months after the rescue of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight from a Cleveland house of horrors, and two weeks after the suicide of their abductor, “Prisoners” is chillingly poignant.

A voyeuristic RV stalks a sleepy Pennsylvania suburb, where survivalist father Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and wife Grace (Maria Bello) invite their best friends, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), over for Thanksgiving. Their daughters, Anna Dover and Joy Birch, are best friends, who mysteriously go missing shortly after dinner.

The families last remember seeing the girls playing on the RV, so they ask loner Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to interview its owners, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a quiet man with the IQ of a 10-year-old, and his aunt, Holly (Melissa Leo). The twitchy detective takes his investigation around town, following everyone from a local priest (Len Cariou) to a hooded man attracted to candlelight vigils (David Dastmalchian). But Loki’s investigation isn’t moving fast enough for Keller, who takes matters into his own hands by abducting the man he thinks abducted his daughter.

The cast comes with a combined seven Oscar nominations: Hugh Jackman (“Les Miserables”), Jake Gyllenhall (“Brokeback Mountain”), Viola Davis (“The Help,” “Doubt”), Terrence Howard (“Hustle & Flow”) and Melissa Leo (“Frozen River” and a win for “The Fighter”). We also get Maria Bello, who earned two Golden Globe nominations for “A History of Violence” and “The Cooler,” and Paul Dano, a brilliant young talent who was snubbed for “Little Miss Sunshine” and “There Will Be Blood.”

Ironically, it’s Dano who turns in the film’s best performance as the soft-spoken suspect. Gyllenhaal carries the narrative load with clever acting choices, sculpting a unique character with a blinking eye tick, while Jackman unleashes a fatherly rage in a career performance, Jean Valjean be damned.

Often, the best performances create heroes who could snap into anti-heroes at a moment’s notice. Here, Jackman gives everything and the kitchen sink, which he then smashes with a hammer.

How do you attract such a star-studded cast to the thriller genre? You bring in a director with some international clout. In this case, it was French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, whose mystery/drama “Incendies” (2011) earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

In “Prisoners,” Villeneuve creates an atmospheric world of dreary steel grays where even the shift from rain to snow has meaning. He builds a masterful level of tension because he’s patient in his set-ups, watching eerily from afar and letting the visual space breathe with minimal cutting by Eastwood editors Joel Cox (“Unforgiven”) and Gary Roach (“Million Dollar Baby”). As his camera slowly pushes in on a tree in front of the Dover house, we recall the opening shot of the woods, where the camera pulls back to reveal a hunter targeting a deer. The predator-prey analogy is powerful.

Villeneuve also makes effective use of familiar images: RVs, necklace pendants, bloody socks, mazes, whistles. He even extends this concept to include audio callbacks, namely the childhood ditty: “Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg. Batmobile lost a wheel and Joker got away.”

At first, the “Joker” tune feels like a nod to Gyllenhaal’s “Brokeback” co-star Heath Ledger, or to Dastmalchian, who played a Joker henchman in “The Dark Knight.” But it also reminds film buffs of Peter Lorre’s whistling tune in Fritz Lang’s child-abduction masterpiece “M” (1930).

Indeed, Villeneuve seems keenly aware of his genre’s history. Many elements recall past thrillers:

  • Gyllenhaal chasing a serial criminal, like in David Fincher’s “Zodiac” (2007)
  • Important clues hiding behind refrigerators like Fincher’s “Se7en” (1995)
  • Grieving parents moving into vigilantism, like in Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River” (2003)
  • Dreams of lost children, like in Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now” (1973)
  • Homemade elixirs revealing the truth, like in George Sluizer’s “The Vanishing” (1988)
  • Suspects opening the front door to realize they’ve been caught, like in Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)

“Prisoners” never quite rises to the level of these gems, perhaps due to its 2 1/2 hour runtime. But the sophomore script by Aaron Guzikowski (“Contraband”) is admirably intricate, with a number of red herrings and puzzles that make sense the more you think about them (there’s significance to the house where the RV is parked). It also challenges our sympathies with the characters and our complicity with their actions by making the abductors the abducted.

At times, it feels too clever by half, trying to out-twist itself with Biblical motivations that are never quite explained. By the time a hospital scene rolls around, the film teeters dangerously on the edge, but thankfully it doesn’t attempt the twist we think it’s about to, and we’re all the better for it. By the end, the filmmakers appear exhausted, prisoners of the very maze they’ve created, but they sure know how to make an exit, flashing the end credits at just the right moment.

Say what you will about the plot specifics. The narrative is not what will arrest you in your seat; it’s the unsettling world we’re forced to inhabit, where ordinary people are capable of horrific things, and unspeakable dangers lurk just below the surface of suburban homes.

Crime thrillers are a dime a dozen, but here’s one I wouldn’t wait to Redbox. “Prisoners” is worth seeing on the big screen just for cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose Oscar is long overdue after “Shawshank” (1994), “Fargo” (1996), “No Country for Old Men” (2007) and “Skyfall” (2012).

It’s not quite a masterpiece, but if you follow Keller’s motto “pray for the best, expect the worst,” you might come out pleasantly surprised – and with no fingernails left.

★ ★ ★ 1/2

The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. Follow WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on Twitter @AboveTheJFray, read his blog The Film Spectrum or listen Friday mornings on 103.5 FM.

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