“Prisoners,” a child-abduction crime thriller, practically shouts a question at its audience: What would you do? What are you capable of when pressed into a very black corner?
At least, that's what most of the movie seems to be doing, exploring moral ambiguity that imprisons just about every character before this dark tale is over.
Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (an Oscar nominee for “Incendies”) and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (“Contraband”) drop that thread only in the last chunk of a too-long movie (2 hours, 30 minutes). The ending is all about solving and explaining mysteries.
This is the kind of movie that gives you an awful feeling in the pit of your stomach and then leaves you there. Like “The Lovely Bones” and “Silence of the Lambs,” it successfully imparted a sense of dread and dealt with some creepy, even grisly elements.
That sustained tension is a tribute to strong acting, particularly from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Jackman is Keller, a home remodeling contractor and a bit of a survivalist, teaching his teen son (Dylan Minnette) to hunt deer in an opening sequence. Pray for the best, prepare for the worst is his motto. Keller and wife Grace (Maria Bello) also have a daughter, Anna, about 6 (Erin Gerasimovich).
The family is invited to the neighbors' (Viola Davis, Terrence Howard) for Thanksgiving. Anna is pals with their daughter, Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons).
Anna and Joy simply disappear after dinner. As the parents grow frantic, loner Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) takes the case. He quickly arrests Alex (Paul Dano), a young man in a pickup-camper seen in the neighborhood. But there's no evidence to hold him, and he's mentally handicapped. He's released back into the custody of his aunt (Melissa Leo).
Keller is sure this is the guy, and that Alex knows where the girls are. Time is of the essence. He takes matters into his own hands, abducting Alex and torturing him to try to get him to talk.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins, a 10-time Oscar nominee from “The Shawshank Redemption” to “Skyfall,” paints with a gray, drizzly, mud-colored palette that reinforces the psychological games being played.
Villeneuve gives each character moments all their own in which the pain and anguish are readily apparent. Grace goes into depression. Davis' character shuts down emotionally. Howard's character seems paralyzed.
Keller becomes an obsessed zealot on the wrong side of the law, while Loki is clearly just as obsessed on the other side. The detective rounds up all the sex offenders within a radius of the abduction, turning up more creepiness along with dead ends. Both he and Keller are relentless in their pursuit.
The movie again raises the issue of enhanced interrogation and spells out the cost that both captor and captive pay in such situations.
It also keeps you guessing, throwing suspicion every which way.
That's good, in that it engages you. The only real fault is that it goes on longer than it should, eventually turning its audience into the prisoner.