Hugh Jackman finally gets a movie to sink his claws into. In "Prisoners", he plays Keller Dover, the archetypal patriarch.
He looms large and bearded. He teaches his son to hunt, loves his daughter and takes care of his wife; this, as you can see from their surroundings, while living a working-class existence, especially when compared with their neighbours and friends, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis). Dover hunts for sport (and food), whereas Birch spends his free time learning to play an instrument.
What they have in common and what holds this Pennsylvania community together are good old-fashioned values and, for Dover, a steadfast belief in God and family.
Then, during Thanksgiving at the Birch household, the families' young daughters, Anna Dover and Joy Birch, vanish, and everything Dover holds firm is shaken to the core. The police apprehend a mentally ill young man who owns the van the children were seen playing around. They cannot hold him for longer than a day because of a lack of evidence – and the boy, Alex Jones, won't talk.
Desperate as the days tick on and believing that the feeble-minded boy is guilty, Dover kidnaps him and hides him in an abandoned house, where he tortures him. You'll find these scenes hard to stomach, because the audience does not have the conviction of Dover. Alex seems to fit the bill: he's physically repulsive, a gangly and dirty, unfeeling boy, who is seen yanking a small dog by the neck when no one is looking. But is he guilty? And why won't he say something – anything?
The Birches don't agree with Dover's methods, but they won't stand in his way because they also want their daughter back.
In a way, the fire and force of the rage in Jackman's character is all-consuming and steals some energy from the rest of the movie. It can sometimes feel as though the brilliance of Maria Bello (remember her in A History of Violence?), who plays Dover's wife, as well as Howard and Davis, are a little wasted. But Jackman plays Dover well – he lets us in on his pain, his sense of helplessness and his rage at the injustice of it all.
In this thriller, Dover is both the villain and victim. The hero here is played by Jake Gyllenhaal, and you won't tire of watching him play the studious and perceptive Detective Loki. He, like Dover, has conviction, but his is built on a combination of solid fact and intuition. He is racing against time, to find the girls and to save Dover from himself in a police department that takes a lackadaisical attitude to the troubles that taunt its community.
Prisoners is shot exquisitely. The details are crystal-clear. There is a beautiful bareness to the movie, which is shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins, who shot No Country for Old Men.
Yet the story feels lush because of the changing landscape, the rain followed by the thickening snow as the movie gets chillier.
The clean shots make the characters stand out so that you can see the tortured soul behind Loki's every twitch and the fear underneath Dover's violent might and clenched jaw.
It also helps you see more clearly that under this veneer is a rotting community of missing children and demented adults.
The movie also raises the traditional masculinity theme. "I always thought you would protect us," says Dover's wife, who, at this point is incapacitated by pills and grief. And this is what drives Dover further into the abyss: the belief that the disappearance of his child is an indictment on him as a father and a husband.
This is not a movie in which you can take sides. In fact, it leaves you stranded, desperately trying to cling to any character who might show mercy. It does take some liberties, though, with the storyline.
There are some confusing bits that make one feel a bit lost: What have the snakes got to do with it? What happened to that priest? Tightening up such instances could have made Prisoners tauter and pacier.
But it does keep you guessing. There are so many suspects, each with a motive, but you'll never guess the culprit.
The power of Prisoners is in the strength of its two key characters and the fact that it will not let you relax and assume that things will go your way. That only happens in the movies. Life, as we all know, does not work that way.