Like Clint Eastwood's sadistically bleak Mystic River, Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners presents its protagonists with an unimaginable horror: the abduction of their young daughters. As Pennsylvania patriarchs driven to the edge by the disappearance of their 7-year-olds, Hugh Jackman's and Terrance Howard's faces are mapped with anguish as their characters go to extreme measures to bring home their daughters. As their wives, Maria Bello and Viola Davis exude sympathy and catatonia in equal measure. Gloom lurks around every corner of the rain-drenched world. Nary a ray of light gets in.
But unlike Mystic River, this year's first high-profile awards contender takes a story of families trapped in a cycle of horror and gives it the paperback treatment. It's a yarn that wrings pulp out of the proceedings, something Eastwood was too busy torturing his characters to try. That's not to say Prisoners is better than the overrated Mystic River, but it is far more watchable.
After all, we want to watch our villains suffer, so most audiences will thrill at the idea of Jackman, shedding his Wolverine costume but not the menace, kidnapping and torturing a suspect (Paul Dano) in an effort to translate his pain into answers. But Ransom this isn't, and Villeneuve juggles morality with a deft hand: Dano's character has the mind of a 10-year-old, and there is no physical evidence against him. Just Jackman's hunch. That leaves the audience in a lurch. "Pray for the best, prepare for the worst," Jackman repeatedly says, even as he devolves into a beast.
Scenes between Jackman, Howard and the impressive Dano are wonderfully tense, but the film loses traction whenever Jake Gyllenhaal enters. As a hotshot detective, Gyllenhaal is perfectly effective, but it's during his investigation that the mystery derails into total pulp, injecting the otherwise bleak and realistic story with endless red herrings and mythological mumbo jumbo that would be more at home in an Alex Cross movie.
Still, Villeneuve, who exploded onto the scene with 2010's devastating Incendies, shows endless potential in his U.S. debut. It may not have the endlessly pummeling effect of Mystic River or Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone, but in terms of child-abduction thrillers, it's engaging and gut-wrenching—without diving into an abyss of emotional torture in the name of entertainment.
Critic's Grade: B
SEE IT: Prisoners is rated R. It opens Friday at Lloyd Center, Bridgeport, Cedar Hills, Eastport, Clackamas, Oak Grove, Division.