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By Anita Felicelli

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About this blog: I grew up in Palo Alto and now live in Mountain View with my husband, daughter and two corgis. After about a decade grappling with the law, first as a law student at UC Berkeley and then as a litigator around the Bay Area, I left ...  (More)

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Prisoners—a dark thriller

Uploaded: Sep 20, 2013
"Prisoners" directed by Denis Villeneuve ("Incendies") in his American directorial debut starts with a series of creepily poetic shots. A closeup of the bark on the trees as a doe moves behind them through the snow; we witness a father and son kill the deer and in the background, there is a voiceover of the Lord's prayer. Later we see the deer meat being sliced for Thanksgiving. The bright round heads of a search party's flashlights moving through the woods.

The movie is a taut and suspenseful mystery that revolves around the kidnapping of two small girls, one black and one white, from families that are celebrating Thanksgiving together in Pennsylvania. The girls' siblings note that they were playing on an RV earlier. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is an intuitive carpenter who quickly decides he knows that Alex (Paul Dano), the driver of the RV, abducted the girls and takes matters into his own hands. The other father, Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), is surprisingly stoic at first, in contrast to Keller's vigilantism. Even though Alex is a young man with the IQ of a ten-year-old, Keller takes him hostage to find out the whereabouts of his daughter.

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the heavily tattooed law enforcement officer assigned to the case. Gyllenhaal does an excellent job of playing off Jackman. His character has a tic of rapidly blinking whenever he's thinking hard. At a candlelight vigil for the girls, Loki notices another young man stroking the arm of a stuffed animal. A chase ensues and a series of clues slowly accumulate—a book of mazes, boxes of snakes.

Villeneuve excels at misdirection, surely one of the chief pleasures of the movie. When we first come upon Gyllenhaal, for example, the creepiness of the way the camera steals towards him, coupled with his strange terseness, makes you think that he could be the kidnapper. This skillful approach to suspense in which the viewer is almost an equal partner in unraveling the mystery, places this movie just alongside other top tier, bleak thrillers like "Mystic River" or "Cape Fear" or "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."

At 2 hours and 26 minutes, this movie could be a bit of a commitment, particularly if psychological thrillers are not your cup of tea. The movie is a notch below Gillian Flynn's novels in terms of plotting and cohesiveness, but sure to please fans of the miniseries "Top of the Lake." Assuming you like the genre, the movie is never a slog in spite of its length.

In my opinion, "Mystic River" was slightly better than "Prisoners." The movie's opening promises so much and then it sinks into more conventional genre tropes. The director became too reliant on moderately graphic violence, rather than the artful misdirection at which he clearly excelled, the latter of which also better served the story. The idea, however, that evil is lurking someplace close by, just out of sight, and that grief can cause an ordinary man to do evil things—becoming perpetrator from his sense of being victimizes—is powerfully rendered. It's definitely worth watching for fans of darker fare.

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