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Two families get ready for Thanksgiving dinner, yet the scene is foreboding and ominous. The camera leers outside the house like a voyeur, and the drab light drains the scene of any holiday spirit. We already know something terrible will happen, and soon. This is the introduction for Prisoners, the new thriller by French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. His Hollywood debut is dark and relentless, complete with sinister motives and ugly violence. It’s also utterly compelling, even if its power wanes in the days after watching it.

The fathers of the two families are Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard). Dover is tough, devout Christian, the kind of man who says the Lord’s Prayer before his teenage son (Dylan Minnette) shoots a deer in the throat. Franklin is less severe, though no less protective of his family. Their daughters, both around six years old, ask permission to play outside. Some time passes, and they’re nowhere to be found. In the initial search, Keller’s son notes how he saw an RV parked on their block, and now it’s gone. This clue is instrumental to the subsequent investigation led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). The RV belongs to Alex Jones (a barely recognizable Paul Dano), who has the mental capacity of a ten year old. Without any charges to hold him, the police release Alex to his aunt Holly (Melissa Leo).

This is the point where Prisoners diverges into two parallel stories of men who seek justice. Convinced that Alex is guilty, Keller kidnaps him, ties him to a radiator in an abandoned apartment building, and attempts to beat him toward a confession. Jackman’s performance is ferocious but one-dimensional: he screams and bellows, and the only nuance to the role is when he takes up drinking to cope with his loss and to take Loki off his scent. Eventually Keller brings in Franklin and his wife Nancy (Viola Davis) to help his interrogation, but Alex refuses to budge. Keller is relentlessly aggressive – he made his choice – but Franklin and Nancy are more resigned and complicit, which raises questions about how we’d behave in a similar situation.

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The shrewd, tightly-written script by Aaron Guzikowski blends a macabre procedural with a morality tale and even some political allegory. There’s no denying the similarities between Alex’s imprisonment and a post-9/11 CIA detainee: there’s a bag over Alex’s head and he’s put inside a sensory deprivation box. As with all the scenes, Villeneuve shoots matter-of-factly, looking directly at his subject without any shaky-cam (Roger Deakin’s excellent cinematography, full of greys and tired greens, is appropriately cold and dark).

At first, it seems as if Guzikowski and Villeneuve set up a deeper point about whether the ends ever justify the means, but instead the filmmakers co-opt the imagery precisely because it’s culturally controversial. It’s exploitation at its most shameless and powerful: missing children are at stake here, not something abstract like national security, so the torture scenes are challenging. Still, Villeneuve superficially grapples with the subject matter, and his approach would be offensive if weren’t filmed so well.

Detective Loki’s story is challenging, too, but in the way it evokes the darkest film noir. Compared to Keller, Loki is a far more compelling character: whereas Keller seethes and rages over his lost daughter, Loki tries to keep his cool and hide what he’s thinking (his tattoos and greasy hair only add to his charisma). His best scenes are a riff of classic detective fiction. Prisoners is solemn throughout, except when Loki interacts with his Captain (Wayne Duvall). It is impossible to tell whether their relationship is based on mutual respect or seething hatred because they curse at each other, yet cannot deny the other’s intelligence.

Towards the end, Loki wanders into territory situations as dark as anything since David Fincher’s Se7en. In one incredibly tense scene, he enters a suspect’s home and finds not one mysterious box, but close to a dozen. To his credit, Gyllenhaal downplays the role so that he meets each macabre discovery with dogged competence. Between this and End of Watch, there are few actors that are so good at cops roles.

Throughout Prisoners, Villeneuve repeats a shot where the camera looks toward its subject but a flat object disrupts the view, whether it’s a prison cell door or a car window distorted by glass. He creates a series of mini-prisons, capturing people when they’re literally stuck or cannot think their way out of a tough situation. Small details like this have a way of drawing us in: there’s no denying this is familiar territory, although it does not matter when suspense takes over. Prisoners answers all the important questions about its premise, even if the final minutes lack the grim elegance of investigation scenes. This is an effective thriller, one brimming with menace, but its substance fails to match its confident style.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfRckdHq–c
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