It's all about the basements.
In Denis Villeneuve's nervy, vervy child-abduction drama "Prisoners," the basements hold the clues to the characters who live above them.
"Prisoners"★ ★ ★ ★
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Maria Bello
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Other: A Warner Bros. release. Rated R for violence and language. 146 minutes
Take Keller Dover, played by Hugh Jackman, a working-class husband and dad who tells his teen son he can't afford to help him purchase a cheap used car.
Yet, Keller has stocked his basement with hundreds if not thousands of dollars worth of ammunition, water, food and survival supplies that will never be used.
Aaron Guzikowski's airtight screenplay never points out that Keller's priorities might be a bit skewed. It's just another subtle clue to Jackman's small-town character in this amazing, disturbing motion picture that plays with familiar thriller conventions while rejecting most of the genre clichés.
"Hope for the best," Keller cautions his son, "and prepare for the worst."
But no father can prepare for what happens here.
In a small Pennsylvania town where nobody locks the front door, two families gather for a Thanksgiving feast. Keller and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) have a son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and daughter Anna (Erin Garasimovich).
Frank and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) have a daughter Joy (Kyla-Drew Simmons).
By the end of the meal, the parents barely notice their daughters haven't been seen since they left to play together. They've disappeared. The only clue: an old RV parked on the street with someone inside playing the radio.
We first see detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) eating his Thanksgiving dinner alone in a Chinese restaurant. The tattoos on his neck and hand signal us that this quietly angry cop won't be a regular Hollywood detective.
He promises to find the girls -- he has never failed to close a case. But when he can't pin enough evidence on the RV driver, a mentally challenged young man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano), the cops release him.
Furious and frustrated, Keller decides to act, for he knows that the longer a child remains missing, the less likely she will be found alive.
After Keller witnesses Alex tormenting a whimpering dog, then singing the same song Anna sang the day she disappeared, the dad becomes motivated to drag Alex to an abandoned apartment building to be tortured until he reveals Anna's location.
With the number of kidnappings now at three, this gritty, spellbinding mash-up of a taut detective drama and a cautionary vigilante tale veers into John Wayne Gacy and Ed Gein territory.
Loki discovers a bound-and-gagged rotting corpse in a hidden basement of an old priest (former Broadway star Len Cariou), once convicted on molestation charges.
Then, later at another location, Loki finds a room with large lockboxes neatly arranged on the floor.
Watch carefully, for every seemingly insignificant element in "Prisoners" provides shrewd foreshadowing to what will happen later.
Every actor in "Prisoners" blossoms with realistic restraint under Villeneuve's refined direction. As the mothers, Bello and Davis buckle under the pressure: one to sedatives, the other to despair.
Dano brings enigmatic empathy to Alex, a blank slate when it comes to telegraphing guilt or innocence.
The always watchable Melissa Leo wrings dramatic mileage out of her supporting role as Alex's concerned and lonely mother, Holly Jones.
Yet "Prisoners" belongs mostly to the alpha males played by Jackman and Gyllenhaal, smart, complex characters who tolerate each other to find the missing girls.
"Prisoners" doesn't quite match Jonathan Demme's "The Silence of Lambs" for sheer suspense, wonderfully rendered characters and outrageous unpredictability, but it comes close enough.
This is one of the year's most intense motion pictures, captured in riveting, color-bled widescreen images by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, with Johann Jóhannsson's eerie score goosing the suspense.
And don't forget those basements. For what they harbor tells us the truth about the people who live above them.
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