Anyone who pays even passing attention to the trailers and commercials for “Prisoners” may think they have a handle on what this movie is about: Hugh Jackman’s an aggrieved father on the hunt for his kidnapped daughter, and he’s not going to leave a stone unturned — or a face unpunched — until he finds her.
It’s “Taken” recast with Wolverine in the lead. The script pretty much writes itself, complete with vigilante violence, easy resolution and audience catharsis. Cue up “Prisoners II” for next year.
But that’s not what French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (whose 2010 film, “Incendies,” was nominated for a Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar) and writer Aaron Guzikowski (“Contraband”) have in mind. Grim, grey and surprisingly gruesome, “Prisoners” — the director’s first foray into English-language filmmaking — has its flaws, but predictability is not one of them.
Jackman is Keller Dover, a Pennsylvania home remodeler who prides himself on protecting his family, whether it’s teaching his teenage son (Dylan Minnettev) to hunt, or keeping a well-ordered survivalist’s pantry in the basement. But his sense of order is shattered when — while having Thanksgiving dinner with neighbors Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) — his daughter (Erin Gerasimovich) and the Birch’s daughter (Kyla Drew Simmons) are snatched off the street in broad daylight.
The immediate suspect is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a guy sleeping in an RV parked near the house. The trouble is, Alex has the mind of a 10-year-old, is in the care of his aunt (Melissa Leo), and has no real idea what’s going on. Lead investigator Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) has no choice but to let him go because there’s no evidence linking him to the crime.
That’s when Keller takes matters into his own hands and, in a lesser movie, this is where viewers get to root for him as he knocks heads together. Instead, Keller sinks to the level of abuser as he kidnaps Alex, locks him in a room, tortures him, all the while guilt-tripping and browbeating the Birches into helping him do it.