With the release of Denis Villeneuve's chilly, David Fincher-esque procedural "Prisoners," this year's Oscar season has officially begun. Boasting several award-worthy performances from its A-list stars, a twisty plot, gorgeous cinematography, and an epic length, the film seems like exactly the sort of thing the Academy loves to reward. Still, the dark, often unpleasant subject matter and tone of the film may end up scaring away voters when ballots come around.
"Prisoners" is set in a blue-collar suburban Pennsylvania neighborhood (though, oddly, filmed in Georgia). As the film begins two families are getting together for Thanksgiving dinner, as is their tradition. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), his wife, Grace (Maria Bello, "A History of Violence"), and their teenage son and 6-year-old daughter walk down the block to the home of Franklin (Terrence Howard, "Lee Daniels' The Butler"), Nancy (Viola Davis, "The Help"), and their daughters. After dinner, the two youngest girls go outside to play, but never return. It isn't long before the families panic and the police are involved, but the girls seem to have vanished without a trace.
Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned to the case, and turns up a suspect, Alex (Paul Dano, "There Will Be Blood"), a mentally challenged young man who is found driving an old RV the girls were last seen playing near. But with insufficient evidence, the police are forced to turn him loose. Finding that the investigation isn't moving quickly enough, and knowing that the longer the girls are missing, the less likely thy will be found alive, Keller takes it upon himself to get some answers. His desperation leads him to kidnap Alex and hold him hostage. As Loki continues his quest for the truth, Keller begins to brutally torture Alex for information about the whereabouts of his daughter. The script (which made it onto the Black List, an industry list of the best unproduced screenplays) does a good job filling out the complexities in a story that might otherwise have turned into another vigilante-justice genre exercise. Alex has exhibited just enough suspicious behavior to make it seem possible that he may be guilty.
A father driven to extremes, Keller Dover is a showy role, and Jackman sinks his teeth in, tapping into some of that Wolverine berserker rage. It's a performance that's always threatening to go over the top, but somehow manages to never cross that line. Terrence Howard (providing the silenced conscience of the movie) and Viola Davis play secondary roles, but capably convey the moral dilemma their characters face as they eventually learn of Keller's actions. Melissa Leo is also quite good in the crucial role of Alex's protective mother.
Villeneuve loads the film with an almost unbearable sense of dread. The constant tension makes for a thrilling, but exhausting viewing experience. "Prisoners" is not without its problems. The first two thirds of the film are masterful, but when the film finally gets around to providing a solution to its central mystery, it doesn't quite live up to the build-up that preceded it. The film is also long — more than two-and-a-half hours. I was always enthralled, but became more conscious of the length as the running time wore on... and on. Roger Deakins, the cinematographer behind "Skyfall" and nearly all of the Coen Brothers' films, turns in typically masterful work. He makes the gray dreariness of the late-fall-into-winter setting somehow always look beautiful.