Every year, Toronto begins to take on certain themes by the festival's midpoint, and this year there were some strong, serious dramas involving characters who go it alone in life, and much of the time to their own detriment.
A man's voice can be heard reciting the Lord's Prayer in the opening moments of "Prisoners". The shot is of a lightly snow-covered forest in late fall. We notice a deer on the left side of the screen, ambling her way to the center. The prayer concludes. A shot is fired, the deer collapses, and the camera reveals a father and his teenaged son, who has just made his first kill.
The father is a good and decent man who plays by the rules, provides for his family of four, is strict but not unloving. A "Joe the Plumber" kind of guy who "used to like" Bruce Springsteen (code for "I stopped liking him when he came out as a liberal"), he's an AM radio-listening, pickup truck-driving preacher of self-reliance, as well as a survivalist who believes in hoping for the best but preparing for the worst with a cellar stockpiled with goods meant to weather the kind of catastrophe that would, ironically, wipe out the cellar.
His name is Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and he lives in a sleepy little rural Pennsylvania town with wife Grace (Maria Bello) and their two kids. What he does with the Lord's Prayer--twice in this movie--is a commonly accepted form of arrogance against God that even the most devout followers are guilty of. It's what separates Gods from humans, for the Lord's Prayer, to the best of my understanding, is not a petition meant for the begging of blessings or forgiveness, but is a great and holy vow in which you surrender fully to and accept and live by God's will on Earth, as it is in heaven. Repenting for your sins before you commit them is not part of the bargain.
"Prisoners", an intense and relentlessly despairing psychological thriller, arriving in theaters hot with Oscar buzz for its lead performances, is a story of God's fallen angels on Earth, prisoners all, either metaphorically or literally. It is a difficult film to talk about without giving too much away, so I'll give enough to set the scene and dance around the rest.
It is safe for me to reveal that the movie centers around the Thanksgiving Day abduction of two young girls, best friends who live a spit from each other. Terrence Howard and Viola Davis play the other set of parents. Both families have gathered for the holiday feast, and shortly after dinner while the grownups retire to the living room, the girls head out to play and do not return. The first lead involves a suspiciously parked RV in the neighborhood right around the time of the incident.
Johann Johannsson's mournful musical score and Roger Deakins' cinematography create an immediate, gripping atmosphere filled with dread, as a lurking and imminent danger moves in on our unsuspecting families. The score reminded me at times of church music that plays as followers find their seats before Sunday mass. Deakins sees this world in mostly natural light, in that time of year where crisp, bright colors and sunshine fade into greys and browns and dampness.
In the immediate aftermath and in the days following the kidnapping, the narrative zeroes in on the way Jackman's character becomes totally unhinged by the impotence felt by grown adults rendered powerless by such a tragedy. How could this have possibly happened to him? He was prepared for the end of the world until it paid him a visit.
The local detective is played by Jake Gyllenhaal in the film's best performance, anchoring the story with a pitch-perfect mix of weariness and melancholy. His cop here is a loner, the kind of guy who would find those two cops in "End of Watch" obnoxious. Little is known of his inner life other than physical clues which include tattoos on his neck and hands, an eye twitch that I suspect comes from lack of sleep and stress, and that curious ring which I think denotes membership as a freemason.
The investigation is two-pronged, contrasting the rationality of law and order with that of vigilante justice that comes in the form of Keller acting on truths he feels in his gut, even if there is no evidence to support them. There are police interviews, very few leads, red herrings, dead ends, and bone-chilling scenes of brutality and torture.
In the pulse of the moment-to-moment, I was so completely engrossed after the first hour that I wondered if I was experiencing the "movie of the year". French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, Oscar-nominated in the foreign language category a couple years back with "Incendies" and making his first English language film here, drums up real tension and suspense as well as any other working director out there.
And yet, this film left me a little cold and I think it's because the mounting tension comes at the great sacrifice of the characters of the parents. Maria Bello is a gifted actor, but the best this movie can do is to show her escaping the entire exercise by having her self-medicate. Terrence Howard and Viola Davis are Oscar-nominated actors who get little moments in the first half of the film, but are ignored in the second half while Jackman's Keller becomes less of a study in what a real person might do and more of a tool familiar to us from the plots of mindless revenge films. This movie has all the time in the world for a preposterous character who is only meant to throw us off, but doesn't have time for one scene of the four parents in the same room, hashing things over, dealing with what their next move might entail.
Some will call this a masterpiece, and I understand the sentiment. Here is a two-and-a-half-hour movie that essentially has us on the edge of our seats until the very end. It should petrify the parents of younger children, who will no doubt drive back home a little faster from the movie theater, cursing themselves for leaving their kids with some awkward, sticky teenaged babysitter who is probably sexting with her boyfriend while the children go missing.
General audiences love their creepy whodunits, and I think this should satiate their appetites very well. But for me the spell was broken when I realized that moral complexities, religion and values were taking a backseat to the film's relentless fascination with trying to creep us out and trip us up. And a good creepy whodunit it is, but oh, it promised so much more!