If you've found yourself questioning whether or not Hugh Jackman truly has what it takes as an actor, then all you need to do is see the actor's riveting performance in director Denis Villeneuve's debut English language film Prisoners, a film that actually manages to live up to the description of being called a "thriller."
Indeed, it's a thriller.
The most effective thrillers, at least for my money, find their inspiration from the darkest corners of real life and such is the case for Prisoners, a film that takes the basic concept of being a child abduction thriller and turns the ensuing investigation into a labyrinth of mystery, psychology, and psycho-spiritual nightmares.
It all starts off innocently enough with two neighboring families, the Dovers and the Birches, gathering together over a simple Thanksgiving meal.
Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a devout Christian, recovering alcoholic, and a pragmatic survivalist whose motto of "be ready" is borne more out of a sense of familial devotion than it is some paranoia over a conspiracy theory. He and his wife, Grace (Maria Bello), have gathered with their children, six-year-old Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and 14-year-old Ralph (Dylan Minnette), with long-time friends Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis) and their daughters Eliza (Zoe Borde) and seven-year-old Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons), the latter whom we learn quite quickly is Anna's best friend.
The family's are enjoying each other's company when the girls ask if they may play outside. A bit of miscommunication follows, but in short order the families realize that the girls have disappeared. In their panic, it is remembered that a run-down van had been outside and is now gone. It doesn't take police long to track down its driver, Alex (Paul Dano), an intellectually challenged young man with a mental capacity of a ten-year-old whose very look seemingly warrants suspicion. Suspicion alone isn't enough to arrest him, however, and after 48 hours he is released and quickly disappears. The detective in charge of the case, Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), accepts that Alex isn't their guy but Dover isn't quite so sure.
The film that follows, even at slightly longer than 2 1/2 hours in running time, is easily one of 2013's most mesmerizing and involving thrillers and a film that leaves you constantly wondering what direction it's going next. The film benefits greatly from the cinematography of the great Roger Deakins, whose lensing has always leaned towards grittier earth tones and whose work here lends the film a stark humanity that feels as stark and hopeless as Aaron Guzikowski's crisp dialogue. At times, Prisoners feels like it could be a P.T. Anderson film with its maximum control of the external elements and the way those elements are used to fuel every action. Of course, this is not a P.T. Anderson film but a Denis Villeneuve film. Villeneuve received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film for Incendies, a film that similarly took challenging themes and made them absolutely compelling cinema.
For a non-American director, Villeneuve's perspective on rural America is stellar and insightful. He nicely captures the wounded psyche' of an American smalltown where hope very well may have crossed the border years earlier. Working with Deakins' often despairing lensing, Villeneuve turns Prisoners into a film where every shot and every word becomes important even if the film itself does feel a good 15-20 minutes too long for its own good.
In the film's showiest role, Jackman astounds as Keller Dover, a father whose desperation becomes the fuel needed for his increasingly relentless behavior that culminates in his brutal kidnapping of Alex and "no holds barred" approach to getting him to talk. Jackman provides us with shades of Dover, neither overly sympathetic nor outright evil. At all times, he's a desperate father willing to take desperate measures and as time goes on and the hours and days tick by he's increasingly willing to do absolutely anything it takes. As the other father, Terrence Howard serves up a more controlled performance as a man who sees the wrong in how Dover is handling things yet also accepts that this may be the only way he gets his daughter back.
The film's real powerhouse performance may very well come from Jake Gyllenhaal, whose turn as Loki is far more disciplined and less showy than Jackman's yet never less than hypnotic. Gyllenhaal's Loki obviously has some baggage of his own, yet Villeneuve wisely doesn't show us his backstory. Gyllenhaal's performance alongside Melissa Leo, as Alex's aunt, is beautiful to behold.
Paul Dano is one of those actors whose range is a bit suspect yet when he finds the right part within his range he can be absolutely awesome. Such is the case here as Dano's Alex is far more than the simple perp that Dover and everyone else wants him to be. It's a fine, disciplined performance that fits nicely within the fabric of the film.
While the film's female leads aren't given nearly as much to do, both Viola Davis and Maria Bello still manage to add tremendous heft to the film and, despite being just a tad underwritten, prove to be a nice contrast to their spouses.
Prisoners, as I noted, does tend to go on just a bit too long, but one could also easily argue that every scene feels relevant and vital to everything that happens and the film's closing, which is destined to get some mixed reactions, is proof positive that Villeneuve is tremendously within his element here and has crafted what will no doubt be considered one of the year's very best thrillers.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic