With the big-budget spectacles of summer behind us and the dramas of awards season on the horizon, French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, a foreign-language Oscar nominee for 2010's "Incendies," returns with another dark, weighty film: "Prisoners."
Starring Hugh Jackman as a tormented father whose daughter has been kidnapped and Jake Gyllenhaal as a frustrated detective, the film -- based on a long-admired original script by Aaron Guzikowski -- is earning praise for its fine craftsmanship and strong performances -- although many reviewers add that the experience can be grueling.
In an enthusiastic review in The Times, Betsy Sharkey wrote that "once this chilling thriller about a parent's worst nightmare grabs you, it refuses to let go." She added that "Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski keep the tightly constructed terror twisting by holding it close."
Regarding the acting, Sharkey wrote, "There are excellent performances from a well-seasoned cast including Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Maria Bello and Melissa Leo," but Jackman, Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano (as a suspect in the case) "are the linchpins." Jackman in particular is "unforgettable" and "gives the performance of his career," she said.
A.O. Scott of the New York Times said Villeneuve's film "absorbs and controls your attention with such assurance that you hold your breath for fear of distracting the people on screen, exhaling in relief or amazement at each new revelation. By the end, you may be a little worn out, and perhaps also slightly let down by the fussily clever revelations that wrap up the story, but in the meantime, you are a willing captive, unable tell the difference between dread and delight."
Of the two leading men, Scott wrote, "Mr. Jackman is solid and persuasive, but it is Mr. Gyllenhaal, with his downturned mouth and twitchy eyes, who anchors the film."
USA Today's Claudia Puig called "Prisoners" "a somber, twisting and thoroughly engrossing police thriller." The plot, she said, "raises complicated moral questions about how far an anguished person will go for the love of a child. At the same time, it sets up an intricate, horrifying mystery with breathtaking skill."
Puig added that the film "is infused with a poetic intensity that's rare in American thrillers." Like a number of her fellow critics, Puig likened "Prisoners" to David Fincher's "Zodiac" and Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River."
In a more measured review, NPR's Ian Buckwalter said that "Villeneuve is undeniably a master of slow-build tension," but also that "Prisoners" stumbles toward the end of its 2 1/2-hour running time. "The film grows less concerned with its moral conflicts and more with making the plot's too-many puzzle pieces come together neatly. ... It doesn't ruin the film, but it does undercut that stellar first two-thirds, as well as a pair of truly remarkable performances from Jackman and Gyllenhaal."
Peter Hartlaub echoed those sentiments in the San Francisco Chronicle. "It's easy to get lost in the first hour of 'Prisoners,' and that's a terrifying thing," he wrote. "A superb acting ensemble and smart filmmaking choices help to create an honest portrait of struggling middle-class America, before their relative serenity is disrupted tragically."
However, "[t]he last 40 minutes betray this truth, in ways that are often perplexing. It's difficult to remember a recent movie that soared so high, before plummeting with a series of bad story choices. But the end result is still a strong piece of cinema, a failure only if you dwell on what might have been."
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