Here's a tip. If you don't want people to think you are a child molester, pick out different frames than the ones Paul Dano wears in 'Prisoners.'
When neither Jake Gyllenhaal (as Detective Loki - yeah, you read that right) or his CSI crew can find any evidence that suspected molester Dano abducted two little girls that went for an unsupervised walk through a Pennsylvania suburb after Thanksgiving dinner, it's up to one of the two fathers of the girls - Hugh Jackman - to take matters into his own hand...
While his wife (Maria Bello) zonks out on tranquilizers, Jackman captures the emotionally stunted (But evil! Probably!) young man and takes him to a dilapidated property he owns. He then commits to a plan to beat the hell out of Dano until he gets the information he needs.
Equally upset, but less willing to torture a man the cops say is innocent, is the other father, Terrence Howard. But Jackman is able to convince him at first, because his character exudes old school American manliness. He believes in God, he likes Bruce Springsteen, he keeps a basement full of canned goods in case of emergency and he takes his son hunting.
All that preparedness doesn't help him, though, when a the hand of fate comes down and snatches his daughter. And while 'Prisoners' is very much a film with two leads (Jackman and Gyllenhaal) the first half of the film really works as a disturbing portrait of a man refusing the facts in front of him - and how this refusal changes him.
The 'Prisoners' script, written by Aaron Guzikowski (who also wrote the Mark Wahlberg vehicle 'Contraband') does a lot of things right. Its elliptical portrait of Gyllenhaal, the detective who always gets his man, is top notch. There are quick references to a troubled childhood in group homes, oddly placed tattoos and a not-too-overdone facial tick. From the inertia of a thousand cop movies you get that he is a troubled, dedicated soul - this movie feels no need to get too specific about it.
As such, the moments between a desperate Jackman and by-the-book (but crying-on-the-inside) Gyllenhall are outstanding. They speak at one another, not to each other, and this is amplified by director Dennis Villenueve's ('Incendies') knack for either holding shots or cutting away as dialogue plays on the soundtrack - often to a tangentially related montage.
These niceties, as well as the work of the justly lionized cinematographer Roger Deakins, are more than enough to elevate 'Prisoners' from the standard detective story. The recent Nicolas Cage/John Cusack dud 'The Frozen Ground' shares some similar plot points (as well as bad weather) but further emphasizes just how much 'Prisoners' gets right.
Still, by the third act, when a fairly absurd conspiracy plot is revealed, a lot of the good will this movie earns gets spent. I still had my stomach in knots about getting those two little girls home, but the realism and dread from the opening transformed into fairly typical white hat vs. black hat tropes. It's not that the story doesn't make sense (a nice post-screening conversation with a fellow audience member may be needed to connect all the dots) it's just that, well, it's kinda far-fetched.
'Prisoners' is too nuanced to dismiss, but too silly to take seriously. To me, it's a tiny bit of a let down considering that a more straightforward - and daring - psychological examination was so close to its grasp. might have been. Still, a solid, adult movie with big stars from a major studio is such a rarity that perhaps we shouldn't get too greedy.
‘Prisoners’ opens in theaters on September 20.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.