Thursday, 26 September 2013

Film review: Prisoners (15)

(15) 153mins

Superior story-telling, smart direction and powerhouse performances ensure Prisoners sidesteps the usual child-kidnapping cliches.

The power of depravity to spread like a contagion through a community is forcefully expressed in the superior thriller Prisoners.

While the eerie Soham-like disappearance of two young girls is the simple route to every blood-curdling, heart-stopping cliche in the manual, director Denis Villeneuve has adopted a more novelistic approach, turning the crime into a fiendish puzzle with a knotty core that cannot be loosened by tears alone.

That is not to say that the raw grief of the parents is set aside for something cerebral.

Indeed the film is at its most engaged and intense when (brilliant) Hugh Jackman's wounded bear of a father is roaring at the blundering police, a displacement activity for a man who cannot forgive himself for failing his daughter when it really counted.

"You said you would protect us," says semi-catatonic wife Grace (Maria Bella), tearing at his heart further.

Turns out religious faith, a creed ("be ready") and a basement full of end-of-days supplies were no match for the evil on Keller Dover's doorstep. But he's prepared to do penance to make up for his shortcomings.

When he takes the law into his own hands and kidnaps key suspect Alex Jones (Paul Dano) for, er, enhanced interrogation, we know he is on the wrong path, both procedurally and spiritually.

But the sympathy he evokes ensures we are not inoculated against the contagion either.

Villeneuve wisely offers relief from the tears of the Dovers and the Birches (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) with the laconic, if no less determined, investigations of Jake Gyllenhaal's detective. Loki by name, low-key by nature.

He has no reason to hold Alex but he knows the solution is not as simple as the promise he made to the parents to find their daughters.

The film's 153min length is fully required to unravel this herring-strewn investigation that includes Loki's derailment and Keller's descent into hell.

That the ultimate conclusion is improbable was always the most likely outcome and the truth is slipped like a mickey into the apple pie of small town, God-fearing America.

However the deftness of the plotting,  the brutality of the emotions and, especially, the combustible chemistry between the cool detective and the hotheaded father puts enough in the bank to ensure the audience doesn't feel shortchanged when the culmination arrives stage left.

This is crime movie of the highest order in which the black and white of right and wrong dissolves into a rain-soaked grey of human emotion, distorted beliefs and primal rancour.