There's a lot of religion in "Prisoners."
It opens with prayer. Gospel / pop plays on the radio (Ocean's early '70s chestnut "Put Your Hand in the Hand). And crosses are everywhere - tattooed on hands and hanging on walls, from rearview mirrors and around necks.
There isn't much faith.
Hugh Jackman plays a father who will stop at nothing to find his missing daughter in “Prisoners.”
When his daughter and her young friend disappears, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) can't sit back, let the police officers do their job and have faith in a happy outcome. Instead the survivalist - whose philosophy is "Hope for the best; prepare for the worst" - kidnaps the prime suspect and sets about torturing him until he gets the answers he wants.
Despite that description, "Prisoners" isn't a standard issue vigilante thriller, a "Death Wish" for a new generation.
The cast is the first indication. Vigilante justice movies seldom are brimming Oscar winners (Melissa Leo) and nominees (Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terence Howard and Viola Davis).
STARS: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Terence Howard, Viola Davis, Maria Bello and Melissa Leo.
STORYLINE: When his daughter disappears, a father will stop at nothing to find her, including kidnapping and torturing the man he believes is responsible.
DIRECTOR: Denis Villeneuve
RATING: R for disturbing violent content, including torture, and language throughout.
Director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski are more interested in crafting a movie that works as both a crime thriller and a meditation on torture and whether the ends justify the means.
It works surprisingly well as both. And for a movie that clocks in around two and a half hours, it doesn't feel padded or tedious.
The girls' disappearance rocks a small Pennsylvania town. Police arrest a creepy-looking, mentally challenged man (Paul Dano) whose dirty motor home was seen parked near the girls' houses shortly before they vanished. But there's no physical evidence of the girls in the vehicle, and the man, Alex's, diminished capacity makes a lie detector test unreliable and worthless.
But when Alex is released uncharged and Keller attacks him in the parking lot of the police station, Keller is convinced he hears Alex say, "They didn't start crying until I left." That's all the evidence he needs to kidnap Alex and chain him in an abandoned building, where he uses fists, a hammer, scalding water and other methods to try to get him to stop.
Franklin (Howard), the father of the other missing girl, becomes his reluctant partner in the interrogation. And when his wife (Davis) discovers what is happening, she gets Franklin out of there but doesn't try to stop Keller. Her attitude of, "I don't want to be a party to it, but if it works ..." seems to be a commentary those who willfully turned a blind eye to some of the conduct in the war on terror.
As Keller engages in his own information-gathering process, the lead detective (Gyllenhaal) finds a dead body in the home of a known sex offender, uncovers evidence of other missing children and spots an equally likely suspect in town.
Jackman, far removed from both his musical theater and superhero roles, captures the rage and utter helplessness Keller feels in this situation, and Howard's performance works as a compelling contrast, a man who feels emasculated and as if there's something wrong with himself because he's not willing to go to the same lengths as Keller to find his daughter.
Gyllenhaal's character at times is reminiscent of the cocky street cop he played in "End of Watch." Dano uses his character's silence to create a disturbing suspect, and Leo nicely underplays her role as Alex's protective aunt.
The set up of the revenge / torture storyline all happens in the first hour, and there are several twists and red herrings along the way. Some are predictable, others will surprise.
And for a movie that deals with questions of faith, Villeneuve ends it with a test of faith for the audience, giving them a question to ponder as the screen goes black.