Russell Baillie writes about movies for the Herald

Review: In a world of dread and hurt

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Hugh Jackman and Paul Dano face off in Prisoners.
Hugh Jackman and Paul Dano face off in Prisoners.

Prisoners certainly holds you captive. From its deer-hunting opening scene, to its vexing conclusion two and half hours later, this crime thriller drags you into its world of dread and hurt and, at its own deliberate pace, barely lets up.

Helping it grip tight are the risky, riveting performances of Hugh Jackman as avenging father Keller Dover and Jake Gyllenhaal as Loki, a lone haunted detective trying to find Dover's daughter. She's one of two young girls who go missing as their suburban Pennsylvania families celebrate Thanksgiving Day.

And it comes with a relentlessly unsettling wintry atmosphere, as captured by celebrated cinematographer Roger Deakins.

Its child abduction story might seem to put it alongside the likes of Clint Eastwood's Mystic River or Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone.

But French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, in his first film since his Oscar-nominated Incendies, and scriptwriter Aaron Guzikowski's twisty screenplay also has much to say - about whether torture can ever be justified, about the state of middle America, about religion as comfort and curse.

All of which makes Prisoners a movie that, compelling as it is, falters as its story becomes increasingly convoluted in its latter stages. Its contrivances suggest that instead of that father-and-son deer-stalking opening, they should have gone fishing - because it sure is red herring season for much of the movie.

Back at the start, that's Dover and his teenage son out in the woods in a prologue which establishes him as a solid dad, albeit with a paranoid survivalist streak and probable NRA leanings. He and his wife (Maria Bello) are friends with the Afro-American couple (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) up the street.

When their daughters Anna and Joy disappear, the first prime suspect is Alex Jones (Paul Dano) who is possibly mentally handicapped.

Loki eliminates him as the perpetrator. But Dover takes matters into his own hands, attempting to find out what Jones knows in his own brutal way.

Cue the film shouting: Would you do the same in the same circumstances? How far would you go?

Jackman's aggrieved dad is impressive. But Gyllenhaal's Loki, facial tics, unexplained tattoos and all is, oddly, the more believable.

He's one of the more memorable screen detectives of recent years.

His presence - much like Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs - compels you to believe in Prisoners and not drown in its darkness.


Stars: 3½/5
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Running time: R16
Rating: 153 mins
Verdict: Deep dark disturbing crime thriller

- NZ Herald

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