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'Prisoners' review: A solid morality tale wrapped in stellar performances

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Prisoners

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The worst possible clock is ticking, the likelihood of recovering your kidnapped small child wanes by the moment, and a clammed-up man in front of you almost certainly knows her whereabouts: what do you do?

You’re a devout man of faith, a mature family man… a noble man, even. But the other man won’t talk, and the police won’t help (or can’t, or don’t, or whatever it is but whatever it is it doesn't seem to be finding her). …What do you do?

Hugh Jackman’s nomination-worthy Keller Dover knows what he’s going to do. He doesn't like it, but he knows what it is. He’s going to do what it takes to make the man talk. And if takes torture, so be it.

Hm.

I went into "Prisoners" prepared for the emotional near-intolerability of "Se7en" or "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," or perhaps the surprise sucker punch of "Never Let Me Go." The kind of cinematic sling blade that actually hurts ~ for us and for our characters ~ and leaves one smarting for days.

"Prisoners" could easily have gone that direction, and I’d have followed this cast there, however much it hurt. Happily, director Denis Villeneuve takes mercy upon us, blunting "Prisoners" to an arguably more bearable edge; he gives us plenty of approach to the more disturbing events (non-spoiling spoilers at the bottom of this page), and spared the visuals on the worst of them entirely. This, together with several outcomes I won’t divulge, make "Prisoners" an ultimately hopeful if admittedly grueling emotional ride with a surprising and strangely delicious hangover.

We all like to think we’re clear on our ethical boundaries, secure in what we’d do should they be directly challenged. But perhaps it’s not so pat a conversation. Where "Unthinkable" put before us the issue of who’s need should trump whom’s and when, "Prisoners" lays before us the very real intellectual dishonesty with which we conduct daily life. Pray things never come to what they came for Keller Dover (as they do for many every single day). But if they did, whether we want to admit it or not, we may be very glad he's around.

We’re personally greeted with this discomfiting notion in the very first minute, when we meet him on a wintry woods’ afternoon, reciting the Lord’s Prayer as part of coaching his son on taking the shot that drops the deer. And being the preparedness junkie that he is, it would be easy to argue that he has a propensity for hand-to-hand confrontation. But even as one character eschews his venison, she says nary a word of her own turkey.

At least, one could argue, Dover’s honest about it. And he's a deeply moral man devastated by the path he feels forced to take. If we can’t keep our eyes on the screen at the outset, we have three choices: enjoy our denial, embrace veganism, or accept that we appreciate having someone else do our dirty work for us. Be it the deer, the turkey, or the guy who may have our daughter. Ouch.

So where is law enforcement in all this? It comes in the form of Jake Gyllenhaal in an Oscar-worthy, career-defining performance as Detective Loki. His watchful eye on every spinning plate (oftentimes no thanks to his sergeant), this gifted, iron-fisted/velvet-gloved investigator will become Somerset when he grows up. Gyllenhaal has always been a worthy draw, a strong actor capable of carrying a film, but with "Prisoners" he begins down the path of Kingsley, De Niro, and Freeman.The film's a must-see for Gyllenhaal alone.

With regard to story, I was pleased to notice that screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski has elevated his game. I had been underwhelmed with "Contraband," his previous effort; it wasn't shoddy by any means, it just didn't bring anything new, or even fresh.

"Prisoners,"on the other hand, is much more robustly crafted. If one’s observant, there is something to notice on each man’s track that lead to truth, and though I divulge whether or not either man notices his, I will share that even if you notice them, you’ll still be surprised. Guzikowski twists the plot at least once apiece thereafter, so if you're able to deduce the entire picture, you get the gold star. A second viewing will reveal whether or not that’s actually possible, but I’m inclined to think it is. In any case, it has enough soul and moving parts to keep both the heart and the mind well-engaged. There are a few things that seem left hanging toward the end, but upon reflection afterward one can see that they are, in fact, consistent.

"Prisoners" is also deeply insightful, with not only the ethical conversations discussed earlier, but also with the experience of Detective Loki as the case begins to slip away from him and for a sobering comment by one individual late in the game. The comment rang with a clarity that really does land at a "Se7en"-level revelation, and the thought that a child in such a situation could be collateral rather than quarry puts the entire subject into an entirely new, very chilling light. It makes it seem somehow less horrific, and then suddenly much, much worse. Mercy.

As for any structural shortcomings (and there probably are some if I think about it, but they were so minor I feel no need to go there), the cast more than adequately compensates for them. What could arguably be two-dimensional on the printed page comes fully to life in the hands of the Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated supporting cast, all of whom are capable of realizing an individual through mere posture, expression, or tone of voice. It also sports the best title to come along in quite some time, back to the good old days of depth, dimension, foreshadowing, and reflection.

Oh, and the ending? Well, it’s one we’ll remember for a good while. And that is all I have to say about that. ;)

Story: Two little girls go missing, and when the lead detective is forced to release the suspect (and likely perpetrator) after 48 hours, one's father refuses to let the inquiry end there.

Genre: Drama

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

MPAA: R

Running time: 153 minutes (every single one of them necessary, and you won't feel it)

Official site: http://prisonersmovie.warnerbros.com/

Houston release date: September 10, 2013

Tickets: Check Fandango.com or your local listings

Screened Sep 17th at the Edwards Marq*E in Houston TX

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Non-spoiling spoilers for the tenderfeet (no judgment, I'm one myself):

The deer goes down, but it’s fast and one gets the impression it didn't suffer. Tucker the dog fares badly, and it’s hard to watch (he’s not actually abused, of course, but it’s still very tough to take). When the suspect, Alex, walks him at night, avert your eyes until you hear Hugh Jackman say, “Alex.”

There’s ongoing torture of Alex, and it’s difficult, no doubt. There’s a severe beating, but the hammer is never used as one thinks it might be. The rest of it I won’t discuss because it will spoil the movie, but be assured that you’ll have ample time to recognize what’s coming and be able to cover your eyes and ears.

And it's still worth every single minute of your time.

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