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Captive Audience

Prisoners inspires Stockholm syndrome

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PRISONERS. When we were small, my brother and I decided to play a joke on our parents and disappear for a while. This only amounted to a couple of hours hiding out above the garage, and I couldn't understand why Dad was so upset when he found us. A few decades of living have taught me that the wildness in his eyes that day was inarticulate panic. Losing a child is the most frightening, awful thing a parent can imagine. I have never seen it interpreted with as much clarity and despair as in this movie.

On a dreary Thanksgiving Day, two little girls go missing. The only clue to their disappearance is a battered motor home spotted in the neighborhood. This leads to the apprehension of a person of interest named Alex Jones (Paul Dano). But Jones has the mind of a child, and exhaustive interrogation and forensic investigation fail to turn up any further evidence. Despite the entreaties of lead detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), Jones is released with the girls still missing. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a devout Christian and model of self-reliance, refuses to accept this. He resorts to the only investigative technique at his disposal: sadistic violence. He eventually draws the parents of the other missing girl (Viola Davis and Terrence Howard) into his terrible but understandable scheme, while his wife (Maria Bello) sinks ever deeper into a coma of depression and self-medication. Dover's wrath sets up a tense standoff with Loki, who doggedly continues to pursue the abductor.

For 2 ½ unrelenting hours, Prisoners forces the viewer to live in the same airless darkness as the characters. Tension and foreboding set in immediately, and we're never offered a single minute of relief. But the film is so well-crafted, so technically and thematically breathtaking, that I savored it.

Director Denis Villeneuve (making his Hollywood feature debut) hit the popular radar when his Incendies was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award in 2011. I guiltily admit that I haven't seen any of his earlier work. Based on the strength of Prisoners, I've got a lot of catching up to do. He has clearly mastered the marriage of visual style with subject matter, not to mention the ability to assemble an all-star crew. The lugubrious tone of this inventive, complex script (by Aaron Guzikowski) is intensified by the measured camera moves and doleful lighting of cinematographer Roger Deakins. Villeneuve enlisted Clint Eastwood's editing team (Joel Cox and Gary Roach), and their sense of timing is totally appropriate, as is Johann Johannsson's score, equal parts mournful and twitchy. The production design and costuming create a lived-in, shopworn world of weather-beaten houses under gunmetal skies and pelting autumnal rain.

Into that world Villeneuve introduces the best ensemble cast in years. Jackman in particular gives a career-best performance, his eyes glowing with inexpressible pain throughout. His rictus of fear and rage is a terrible sight, and he never, ever lets it slip. His acting takes us deep into the existential crisis of a kind man forced by circumstance to do unspeakable things. Gyllenhaal more than holds his own, fleshing out Loki as a complicated, focused man with unspoken darkness in his past. With subtle physical tics and hair-trigger physicality, he speaks volumes about his character before he says a word.

I told a friend that Prisoners is by far the best film of the year. Upon reflection, though, I think it does a disservice to a masterpiece. Prisoners is the finest police-procedural in decades, one that bravely navigates vast wastelands of emotional desolation. It deftly balances breathtaking performances, gorgeous visuals and devastating tone. Villeneuve's composure, his confidence without cockiness and his inquisitiveness all impress me as much as his technical skill. Watching this wracked me with anxiety, but I would have gladly sat there and watched it again. R. 153m.

Previews

CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2. The 3-D sequel goes a little Dr. Moreau when food creatures populate an island and hero Flint (Bill Hader) has to stop them. PG. 95m.

DON JON. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson are lovers brainwashed by porn and rom-coms, respectively. R. 90m.

RUSH. Director Ron Howard puts Thor behind the wheel for a trip to the '70s and Formula 1 racing. R. 123m.

Continuing

BLUE JASMINE. Cate Blanchett is a socialite on the cusp of a breakdown who slums it with her sister in this well made Woody Allen drama. PG13. 98m.

DESPICABLE ME 2. Gru (Steve Carell), the girls and the minions are back and saving the world in this fun animated sequel. PG. 98m.

INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2. Style, story and a satisfying scare in director James Wan's haunted family follow-up. PG13. 106m.

LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER. Moving Civil Rights era tale with Forest Whitaker as a White House butler through the decades. PG13. 132m.

PLANES. Like Cars, but not. Really, not. PG. 92m.

THE FAMILY. Clumsy mob comedy from Luc Besson, who should know better, and actors (DeNiro and Pfeiffer) who deserve better. R. 112.

RIDDICK. Vin Diesel entertains as the genetic oddity/anti-hero battling bounty hunters and bad weather on a dark, barren planet. R. 119m.

THE SPECTACULAR NOW. James Ponsoldt's heartbreaking adaptation hits all the right notes — a mature film about teen love. R. 95m.

WE'RE THE MILLERS. Implausible drug smuggling comedy wastes the usually funny Jason Sudeikis and Jennifer Anniston. R. 110m.

Returning

THIS IS THE END. The end of the world stoner bromance with Seth Rogan and company is back in case your short-term memory is fuzzy. R. 107m.

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

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