Hugh Jackman, left, plays a dad whose daughter disappears, and Paul Dano's character is the primary suspect in the thriller 'Prisoners.' (AP)
For its first hour, “Prisoners” feels like a classic in the making — a dark tale of a child abduction that shreds two families in ways that can’t be fixed.
Then over its next hour and a half — pushing the film at least 30 minutes too long — the story goes down so many dead ends, tosses out so many red herrings, and has its characters doing so many strange things that it eventually sinks under its own torpor.
If you’re not checking your watch toward the end, you may have the patience of a saint.
Which would be appropriate; “Prisoners” is rife with religious themes and references — virtually all carefully implied or half-hidden save for a single scene involving a fallen priest with some real skeletons buried in his closet. (The scene also has one of the movie’s best goosebumpy jolts.)
The foundational theme is faith — how its abundance can create a positive and rewarding life, and how its absence can unleash the most horrific, deeply buried facets of human nature.
Meet the Dover family: Keller (Hugh Jackman), a carpentry contractor barely scraping by; his wife, Grace, (Maria Bello); and their kids, teen Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and younger Anna (Erin Gerasimovich).
It’s Thanksgiving, and the Dovers are going a few houses up the street of their dreary, economically depressed town to celebrate with their friends, Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), his wife Nancy (Viola Davis) and their two kids, girls the same ages as Keller’s children.
After dinner, the two younger girls go out to play — and vanish. Suspicion immediately settles on a beat-up RV parked on the Dovers’ street earlier that day but now gone. Enter a local police detective named Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who finds the camper parked behind a gas station, occupied by a filthy wreck named Alex Jones (Paul Dano).
Alex has the IQ of a 10-year-old and can barely form complete sentences. (Yet he has a driver’s license? Red flag No. 1.) He lost his parents in a car wreck at an early age and lives with, his quirky, reclusive aunt (Melissa Leo).
With no physical evidence, Loki must let Alex go. But Keller is convinced Alex took the girls — and the plan he hatches to make the boy talk will fundamentally change the lives of all involved.
Director Denis Villeneuve, a Frenchman who has done nothing of real note on this side of the pond, and writer Aaron Guzikowski, who apparently got this gig by way of his script for the decent Mark Wahlberg action flick “Contraband,” play their setup perfectly, using a slate-gray winter clime and an ominous soundtrack to create a palpable feeling of dread as the story’s context slowly comes together.
Problem is, it then keeps slowly coming together, one odd diversion after another.
It’s not the cast’s fault. As a man who strives to be ready for every possible disaster (and has a prepper’s fantasy basement to prove it) but finds himself impotent to protect his little girl, Jackman is every bit as ferocious as his other, better known alter ego — you know, the one with the adamantium claws.
And Gyllenhaal practically steals the show as the stealthy lone-wolf cop with the cool name who has solved every case he’s ever been assigned to, using an unorthodox style that confounds his clueless captain (Wayne Duvall) and makes the uniformed cops give him a wide berth.
But at almost 150 minutes, the film spins its wheels until it slides into a ditch with an abrupt ending that didn’t go down well with viewers at my crowded screening.
“Prisoners” touches on the types of penance people devise for themselves for sins they can’t wash away. But sitting through this promising premise as it spin its wheels in its last hour starts to feel like a form of penance unto itself.
Rated R for violent content, some of it fairly disturbing. Got a rant or rave about the movies? Email http://firstname.lastname@example.org.