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Jake Gyllenhaal, left, and Hugh Jackman in "Prisoners."

Which way is up?


For the first third, the thriller Prisoners pulls you along smoothly, looking for all the world like a new David Fincher movie. In a Pennsylvania town creaking with recession woes, two families are celebrating Thanksgiving together. The two young daughters go off to play. After a while their parents look around but can’t find them, and a son remembers a battered RV that was parked down the street but is now gone.

The investigation is given to a brooding detective (Jake Gyllenhaal, looking far too grizzled for an actor who’s only 32) who (we are told) has never failed to solve a case. He quickly turns up a likely suspect: Alex (Paul Dano), a withdrawn, nearly mute young man with the IQ of a 10-year-old. But he finds no further evidence and after 48 hours is forced to release him.

That won’t do for Keller (Hugh Jackman), one of the fathers. He is positive that Alex knows where his daughter is. And if he didn’t tell the cops, it’s clearly because they didn’t ask hard enough.

That’s when Prisoners goes off the cliff. And it goes down like Wile E. Coyote, hitting every possible rock and tree branch on the way down. It even bounces back to re-hit some of them a second time.

Not everyone is of this opinion, mind you. Prisoners got a big send-off at the Toronto Film Festival, where any number of reviewers took the bait to pronounce it Oscar material. Don’t put any money on it.

For one thing, it is unsettlingly brutal. The audience I saw it with had trouble watching certain scenes, as well they should. Violence meant to provoke a catharsis—Dirty Harry blowing away the scumbag who’s been asking for it the whole movie—may be reprehensible but at least you understand it. Not so here. You get some moral wiggle room (I’m trying not to reveal any of the plot twists, largely because there are so many of them that anything I tell you will only give you the wrong idea) but it’s impossible to ignore that you are looking at unspeakable cruelty which, even if justifiable, must be ruinous to the soul of the wielder. You expect that to become the theme of the film, but, astonishingly, it never does.

The English-language debut of Québécois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Incendies), Prisoners starts out as a plausibly realistic story. But too late in the game (the running time is over two and one half hours) it starts getting tricky, jerking viewers back and forth with so many contrived ambivalences that by the time you get to the end you simply feel abused. Ironically, an inescapable maze is a clue to the unraveling of a plot that plays like it came from a lurid paperback novel: In fact, it was an original script that was apparently for years considered one of those mythic great unproduced screenplays you often hear about. Funny thing, when those do get produced they tend to result in lousy movies.

It has all been filmed with great skill, largely thanks to photographer Roger Deakins and Clint Eastwood’s regular editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach (Mystic River, to which this film suffers badly in comparison). The performances are powerful but relentlessly one-note: The actors are given one tone to hold to throughout the film. At least Jackman (frustrated rage) and Gyllenhaal (steely determination) get showy notes to work with: Among the other parents, Maria Bello has to go through the film as borderline hysteria, while Terence Howard is stuck with pained impotence. That Dano is good at projecting weakness is not in the viewer’s favor.

The eventual resolution leaves you with any number of unanswered questions, which might or might not make sense were you to go back and watch it all again. (Then again, some befuddlement is clearly built into it: Why name Gyllenhaal’s detective after the norse god of mischief, Loki?) Audiences may tend to overlook many of those in the face of the film’s ending, which at the screening I attended left them literally howling in exasperation.

Entertainment Weekly, among the film’s cheerleaders, calls it “powerfully disturbing.” I will second that assessment, but only to point out that being left “powerfully disturbed” is not necessarily something you really want a film to do to you.

Watch the trailer for Prisoners

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