'Prisoners' Filled With Twists And Turns And Moral Ambiguity

Sep 19, 2013
Originally published on September 19, 2013 6:07 pm
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In the new big-screen thriller "Prisoners," a police detective and a distraught father are at odds over how to solve a kidnapping case. That makes the film sound like a police procedural. But critic Bob Mondello says the filmmakers aim to make it something more.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Two couples, neighbors in a Pennsylvania suburb, have just shared Thanksgiving dinner, and their kids are restless.

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MONDELLO: Nothing out of the ordinary, no reason to worry, certainly, until the girls don't come back. At which point, an older brother remembers something they saw on a walk earlier.

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MONDELLO: The police are called. The RV located. The creepy driver, played by Paul Dano, pulled out and cuffed.

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MONDELLO: There is nothing in the van. No sign of the girls anywhere. And after questioning him for hours, Jake Gyllenhaal's lead detective has to tell the families they're back to square one. One girl's father, Keller, played by Hugh Jackman, doesn't want to hear that.

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MONDELLO: In most police procedurals, he would. But Keller, who's something of a survivalist, is consumed by guilt. He thought he'd protected his family by stockpiling food and emergency gear, preparing for every eventuality. But he didn't prepare for this one. So while the detective pursues other leads, he kidnaps the kidnapping suspect, takes him to an abandoned building and beats him to a bloody pulp to find out where the girls are. After two days of beatings and worse, the young man hasn't said a word and his face looks like raw hamburger, to the horror of the other girl's father, who Keller ropes in late.

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MONDELLO: Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, whose last picture, "Incendies," was about a family tragedy in the Middle East, knows that scenes of questioning under torture will make post-9/11 audiences queasy. If the suspect is innocent, what Keller's doing is monstrous. If he's guilty, it's still monstrous but might save two lives. Should that silence objections?

"Prisoners" is just getting started at this point. And as it wends its twisty way to a conclusion calculated to leave audiences thoroughly on edge, it does not make moral questions or choosing sides particularly easy. Both survivalist father and by-the-book detective have sketchy backstories. And the middle-American normality they're so determined to defend is filled with loners lurking at candlelight vigils, religion and religious hatred living cheek by jowl. All of it cloaked by cinematographer Roger Deakins in dismal grays and ominous greens.

The director isn't above stretching credibility here and there. "Prisoners" takes place in a pocket of Pennsylvania where police procedure apparently doesn't call for getting backup before heading into dark basements, for instance. But there is no denying the filmmaker has cracked an unnerving thriller and one with more on its mind than just taking an audience hostage for a couple of hours. I'm Bob Mondello.

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