Prisoners, which features Jake Gyllenhaal as a feverishly driven detective, is the most exciting and emotional cop thriller we've been treated to since last fall's End of Watch, which Gyllenhaal also starred in. Beyond that, director Denis Villeneuve's effort is probably the most suspenseful, evocative, and disturbing procedural thriller since David Fincher's 2007 Zodiac ... which also boasted Gyllenhaal in a leading role. I'm generally skeptical about the effectiveness of good-luck charms, but if the actor cared to accompany me the next time I buy a lottery ticket, you wouldn't hear me complain.
Photographed by the obscenely gifted cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose foreboding yet crystal-clear images here would make the film worth a viewing even under far less enthralling circumstances, Prisoners casts Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki, a gruff, dedicated professional assigned to investigate the disappearance of two six-year-olds from a suburban Pennsylvania neighborhood. The daughters of two upper-middle-class couples - Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) - the children were last seen heading outside to play after Thanksgiving dinner. They vanished, in broad daylight, somewhere between the Dover and Birch homes, and the only clue to their potential whereabouts lies with the ratty-looking RV that was seen parked on a neighboring curb, and that subsequently disappeared at the same time the little girls did.
But after Loki apprehends the driver of the RV, who turns out to be a quiet, bespectacled young man (Paul Dano) with the mental capacity of a 10-year-old - yet, to Keller's stupefaction, a valid driver's license - the detective is told there isn't sufficient evidence to hold his Alex Jones for questioning beyond a 48-hour period, and the suspect is released. And it's at that point that Prisoners, despite its consistently measured and evenly paced tone, really begins to tighten the screws. Loki, ferreting out other possible perpetrators, finds a pedophiliac priest (Len Cariou), a squirrely loner (David Dastmalchian), and the prime suspect's aunt (Melissa Leo) all figuring into the labyrinthine proceedings. Keller, meanwhile, raging at the perceived inactivity of Loki and the shell-shocked stasis of his wife and friends, chooses to take his grief and anger out on Alex. He kidnaps the young man, locks him in a makeshift cell, and begins to torture him for information that, day by day, isn't forthcoming.
Working from Aaron Guzikowski's elegant, spare, and, admittedly, credibility-straining original script, Villeneuve and Deakins create an atmosphere of near-constant menace and threat, with the icy grays of the Pennsylvania landscape beautifully offset by the material's broiling (if frequently contained) emotionalism. Like David Fincher, Villeneuve knows how to set up an individual shot - a crucifix dangling from a rear-view mirror, an RV interior underscored to the gospel song "The Man from Galilee" - for maximum, gut-tightening portent, and the sound design is absolutely exquisite; when Gyllenhaal and Jackman aren't erupting with rage, Prisoners' helmer maintains an air of eerie, oppressive silence so enjoyably terrifying that you barely want to breathe. (I do wish, however, that I was able to see the film without the distraction of the consumption-ridden patrons at my morning screening, who, perversely, seemed to stockpile their coughs for the movie's most quietly intense moments.) Its narrative may turn somewhat preposterous toward the end, and a few ill-considered details do stick out: Why doesn't Loki re-cover the boxes of snakes instead of letting the creatures slide around on the floor? But the film is an overall triumph of mood and sustained tension, and even running two and a half hours, it's never the least bit dull.
It's also acted about as splendidly as you could hope for. Jackman, all seething fury and survivalist paranoia, gives perhaps his most forceful, deeply felt screen performance to date, and Bello, Howard, and Davis enact helpless, soul-killing sorrow without resorting to easy pathos. (Fellow fans will rejoice in learning that the eternally empathetic Davis doesn't deprive us of her signature performance effect, where she cries without blinking and the mucus flows as readily as the tears.) Dano, having played so many fey and fidgety creeps over the years, initially seems almost too well-cast, but comes through with an anguished, heartrending turn, even when (with kudos to the movie's first-rate makeup team) only his right eyeball is visible. And Gyllenhaal, despite a tendency to overdo Loki's twitchy-eye tic, paints a marvelously textured portrait of single-minded devotion to a worthy cause - an aching need to deliver on promised justice - that's like the best of his End of Days and Zodiac portrayals blended into one role. You'll likely feel put through the wringer by the end of Prisoners. You'll likely, eventually, want to be put through it again.
BATTLE OF THE YEAR
After the wrenching, albeit happy, exhaustion of Prisoners, the goofy-dance-flick lark that is director Benson Lee's Battle of the Year was just the sort of big-screen tonic I needed during Friday's double-feature. Or rather, it would have been if the movie didn't suck quite so thoroughly. Just after the opening credits, a hip-hop entrepreneur played by Laz Alonso goes to the apartment of a former breakdance wizard, and asks if the man will coach an American team that's entering the international b-boy competition. The man looks surprised at the offer, but not as surprised as we are: Holy crap, you think, is that Sawyer from Lost? Yes, it very much is, and the promise/threat of Josh Holloway attempting headspins and freezes and windmills is about the only interest to be had in this shamelessly sentimental, depressingly obvious Follow Your Dreams drama. (To sate your curiosity and save you the cineplex dough, Sawyer never does dance here.)
Although the film's hoofers are clearly talented, with the young Alan Tudyk clone Jesse "Casper" Brown particularly fun to watch, their character names - Do Knock, Sniper, Lil Adonis - are really the only interesting things about them, with Chris Brown (yes, that Chris Brown) a particularly noxious presence. And while you'd expect Battle of the Year to at least offer up some great dance sequences, the ones here are so frenetically over-edited that you get no true sense of their rhythm or effectiveness, leaving you with nothing to remember beyond the dopey-ass clichés. Such as Holloway's boozehound, after finding inspiration in his breakdancing charges, tossing his ever-present flask in the garbage (even though, a few scenes later, he's seen contentedly sipping wine). Or the hiring of a team choreographer who turns out to be - gasp! - a girl. Or the amphitheater full of snotty French ticket-holders having a change of heart when confronted with true American pluck, and eventually cheering on our heroes with a fervor not seen since Rocky (IV) wowed the Ruskies by wailing on Ivan Drago. I giggled all throughout the picture, but in the end, nothing tickled me more than its irony, considering that the movie's chief demographic is exactly the audience who wouldn't be caught dead at a movie like this.