There are suspense thrillers that keep you on the edge of your seat, and there are suspense thrillers that make you recoil to the point that you’d burrow through the backrest if you could.
“Prisoners” seems destined to ruin a lot of perfectly good chairs.
Clocking in at a punishing 153 minutes, the missing-girls drama is so determined to wallow in every aspect of parental misery, it could best be described as grief porn.
After their 7-year-old daughter disappears on a rainy Thanksgiving, Pennsylvania music teacher Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) is so overcome with sorrow he can barely stand, while his wife, Nancy (Viola Davis), withdraws emotionally.
Down the street, Grace Dover (Maria Bello), whose 6-year-old daughter went missing at the same time, weeps uncontrollably before descending into an overmedicated haze. Her husband, Keller (Hugh Jackman), loses himself in inconsolable rage and before long, the bags under his eyes look like they, too, brought bags and they’ve overpacked.
Within moments, suspicion turns to the sinister-looking RV the girls were playing on earlier that day and its driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano).
If you were to open a dictionary and turn to the entry labeled “Young Girls, Grabber of,” there would be an illustration of this guy. But the police determine that Jones, who rarely speaks and lives with his aunt (an unrecognizable Melissa Leo) on her sofa bed, has the IQ of a 10-year-old and couldn’t have committed the crime.
Keller, though, is having none of that.
A carpenter by trade but a survivalist at heart — his basement is stocked with everything from canned goods to gas masks to a suspicious, half-empty bag of lye — Keller thought he could protect his family from anything. He even assured them that he would. So he’s not one to sit back and wait for the seemingly indifferent Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to get the truth out of Jones.
While Loki is busy investigating cold cases and other leads, each one creepier than the last, Keller kidnaps Jones, locks him away and transforms into a one-man Abu Ghraib.
“Prisoners” is designed to make audience members think: How far would a parent go? How far SHOULD a parent go? But it’s just as effective, if not more so, at eliciting gasps. (Speaking of audiences, a girl not much older than those onscreen repeatedly wandered out of the theater and back, unattended. Which begs two questions: Who brings a young girl to a movie like this? And who, after bringing a young girl to a movie like this, would ever let her out of their sight?)
With scene after unsettling scene, writer Aaron Guzikowski (“Contraband”) and director Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”) dig deep into bags purchased in the “Seven” and “Silence of the Lambs” aisles at the Hollywood Tricks Emporium.
Several small, personal scenes are terrifying in ways that the more elaborate ones could only hope to be. One of the latter variety involving snakes seems to have been tacked on solely because snakes freak people out. That along with some of the seemingly hours of wailing could have been trimmed for better effect. As it is, “Prisoners” feels about a half-hour too long.
A lot of Loki’s backstory must have been left on the cutting room floor, and his name, coming on the heels of “Thor” and “The Avengers,” is nearly as distracting as the tribal sun tattoo on his neck.
And the rationale behind the disappearances makes no sense. But, then, that’s probably by design. It’s not like any revelation would suddenly make you say, “Yeah, OK. That seems like a perfectly reasonable excuse for two little girls to go missing.”
First and foremost, though, “Prisoners” is an actor’s movie, and there’s enough superb character work on display for three or four films. Jackman, who wholeheartedly commits to the monster Keller becomes, has rarely if ever been better.
“Prisoners” is intense, and it’s somber, and it plays on every parent’s worst fears. It’s also undeniably well made. It’s just not what most people would consider a good time.
I’m not even entirely sure it’s what most people would call “good.”
One thing is certain, though: Given all the gloom, despair and agony that permeates every scene, it’s hard to imagine anyone but masochists wanting to sit through it again.
Christopher Lawrence reviews movies for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at email@example.com