Review: Prisoners (Of Predators And Prey)

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Wolverine is a puppy compared to Keller Dover, the devout family man Hugh Jackman plays in new kidnapping drama Prisoners. On Thanksgiving, in an unnamed American suburb, his family has dinner with The Birches (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis). While adults savor wine and teenagers watch crap TV, the daughters (around 8) go outside to play and don’t come back. Officer Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is lonesome in a Chinese joint when he gets the call, and no further than a parking lot away a brokedown Winnebago drives into the trees. There’s a lot of misperception in bad weather, as the hero interrogates/intimidates a man with the IQ of a 10 year old (Paul Dano) for undefined crimes we’ve all but diagrammed in our minds.

Director Denis Villanueva (Incendies) keys into the script’s attention to faith, crosses, sources of security, and questions appearances. Mrs. Dover (Maria Bello) cries at her husband from a Valium-addled bedside, “you made me feel so safe”—as if his protective instincts were a tale designed to lure and destroy. But this story by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) is as much about the terror of losing a child as it is about losing the hope their lives supply you—perhaps if you take that hope for granted you’re committing a crime, too. There’s just enough room in every scene to infer motivations, good or evil, and that reminds you every character is capable of both. Detective Loki is Prisoners’ least comforting figure; Keller tortures the would-be kidnapper in an empty apartment building like a crusader, a pure man sacrificing himself because good men rise (or sink) to The Lord’s demands. Loki tells everyone to leave the work to him while he follows leads that wind cow paths around the crime. He’s not investigating familiar ground so his learning curve is stressful—and it makes you question him; the tension reminds you this is a battle between circumstance and faith. It’s easy to see metaphors for parenting.

Kidnapping films always strike me as ironic genre projects: people with kids are most likely to understand the emotional stakes and least likely to watch them for fun. Yet this early bit of Oscarbait has gravity to spare and performances to talk about, making it worth a risk, even if you’re prone to nightmares.

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