By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — “Be ready,” says a father to his son on a hunting trip in Prisoners’ first scene.
Let me say the same thing to you about this riveting drama.
Prisoners is a visually and thematically dark mystery-suspense thriller with a spellbindingly dense plot and a terrific ensemble cast.
When it’s over and you recall the specifics of the narrative, it might seem farfetched or even ludicrous. But while it’s playing out and you’re under its sway, you’ll barely breathe.
On a rainy Thanksgiving afternoon in a shabby blue-collar Pennsylvania suburb, marrieds played by Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello are having dinner with their neighbors, a couple played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis.
Eventually, the adults notice that their two youngest daughters, six-year-old friends who had been playing together, are nowhere to be found.
They call the police, who later that night find a suspicious, mentally challenged young man, played by Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine), in a dilapidated RV that the girls were at some point seen playing near when it was parked on their street.
The cops, led by a tattooed and twitchy detective (Jake Gyllenhaal), arrest and question him but find no evidence and therefore let him go.
That’s when panic sets in and Jackman’s anguished survivalist dad, a carpenter who’s convinced that his child’s life is at stake and that suspect Dano is connected to the abduction, takes the law into his own hands and kidnaps him, beats him up and tortures him, and threatens to kill him.
Still, no confession.
French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, Maelstrom, Polytechnique), in his English-language debut, uses Aaron Guzikowski’s layered and twist-and-turn-filled screenplay –- one that suggests multiple meanings for the film’s seemingly simple title –- as an investigation into our penchant for violence and the moral boundaries we sometimes cross, posing questions that we each answer differently: What would we do? What’s the right thing to do? What, if anything, justifies vigilante behavior?
He examines the way grief envelops and changes us, as well as the ways in which the relationships among the characters shift as the clock agonizingly ticks.
Not overly graphic but monumentally disturbing, Prisoners is about 2½ hours long, but there’s not a wasted frame in this edge-of-your-seat tale, one that masterfully maintains the morose mood and doesn’t completely reveal the last of its secrets until the very end.
The cast, including Melissa Leo as Dano’s guardian aunt, is first-rate, with Jackman a particular standout in a role that calls for out-of-control rage and invites him to go over the top.
But he doesn’t: he’s brilliant.
As is the reliable Gyllenhaal, who has a less showy and primal role that calls on him to convey his character’s inner demons in a more subtle way.
This expertly crafted exercise in dread isn’t easy to shake.
So we’ll question 3½ stars out of 4 for this intense, unflinching, and complex vigilante drama. The masterful, nail-bitingly suspenseful Prisoners takes you prisoner and leaves you drained.