Denis Villeneuve had two films at this year’s Toronto Film Festival. The better one was called “Enemy.” The one that’s getting the big studio release this week is called “Prisoners.”
Being sold with an adrenalized trailer featuring the histrionics of Hugh Jackman, “Prisoners” is meant to be a thriller. But Villeneuve, who directed the Oscar-nominated “Incendies,” is playing a different game, one that’s both more and, unfortunately, less interesting than it seems.
Like David Fincher’s much-better 2007 film, “Zodiac,” a movie that never really found an audience, “Prisoners” has no interest in the kind of headlong, intensity-pumping tale that we associate with the thriller genre. Instead, this is a movie about getting under your skin and creeping you out.
Which it does – up to a point. But Villeneuve, working from a script by Aaron Guzikowski, also draws this story out for almost two-and-a-half hours. There’s easily a half-hour that could be trimmed, not just to speed things up but to inject the kind of mounting pace that this movie demands.
Jackman is Keller Dover, a contractor married to Grace (Maria Bello). They are first seen on Thanksgiving morning, walking with their two kids to the home of their neighbors and friends, Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis). Their collective kids – two teens, two youngsters – go outside to play before dinner. After the turkey, the younger daughters of both families return outside to play some more – and disappear.
There’s only one clue: a camper that was seen parked in the neighborhood when the kids were out the first time. After the cops are called and an amber alert released, the camper is spotted at a highway rest stop and a police detective named Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) captures and arrests the owner.
He turns out to be a feeble-minded young man named Alex (Paul Dano), who lives with his aunt (Melissa Leo). And though Loki intimidates the hell out of him during questioning, Alex can’t or won’t say if he’s seen the girls. A forensics sweep of his camper – and his aunt’s house – fails to turn up even a stray hair or fiber.
Keller, however, is convinced that the kid is the culprit and has the answers to his daughter’s disappearance. When the cops release Alex, Keller snatches him and takes him to an abandoned apartment building he inherited to question Alex himself.
And that’s where the movie breaks down.