Chuck Koplinski: 'Prisoners' loses its nerve when it matters most

Director Denis Villeneuve sets out to examine many substantial themes in his gripping thriller "Prisoners," chief among them the burden of guilt and the quest for redemption.

These are heady issues for a Hollywood production, and during the first two hours of the movie, the filmmaker takes an unflinching approach toward the lofty narrative goals he has set for himself.

Too bad he abandons them during the final act, wasting an opportunity to deliver a powerful moral lesson while opting instead for a muted conclusion.

The film begins with a gut-wrenching portrayal of every parent's worst nightmare. While celebrating Thanksgiving together, Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) find their young daughters have gone missing. Out for a short walk, the girls have seemingly vanished into thin air, though the Dovers' oldest son (Champaign native Dylan Minnette) provides a clue as he remembers seeing a suspicious-looking mobile home parked down the street earlier.

The frantic parents grasp a bit too tightly at this straw, call the police with this information and soon Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is on the case. Sure enough, he and his colleagues track down the vehicle and arrest its driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a young man who has a very low IQ and the demeanor of a child.

Not enough evidence is found to charge the young man, yet that doesn't stop Keller from dogging his every step after he has been released, ultimately kidnapping him to conduct his own interrogation.

From here, the film consists of two parallel plotlines as Loki continues to search for the girls and turns up clues that excuse Jones as the abductor, while Keller resorts to increasingly violent methods to get his captive to confess to a crime we know he didn't commit.

The movie is manipulative to its core, but this morality play kicks into high gear once Keller puts the screws on Jones, and we begin to question the father's methods if not his motivation.

There's more at play than a simple revenge tale as the film does a fine job of delving into what motivates the two men at its core.

Keller, played full out by Jackman, is a survivalist who sees his role as the protector of his family. Once these events undermine this, the man lets anger and fear dictate his actions, his logic reduced to a piece of collateral damage.

Loki, on the other hand, is a man haunted by a past that goes unexplained. His pseudo-religious tattoos coupled with those that might speak of a criminal history suggest a man who's in constant battle over the state of his soul. Gyllenhaal conveys this with a brilliant, coiled performance that communicates this man's repressed anger and doubt in a powerful, moving manner.

Many grand themes are at play in this film, many of them rooted in Christian beliefs. Each man is burdened with original sin as well as moral lapses of his own, and as they all struggle toward forgiving themselves their trespasses, they find that true redemption is always tantalizingly out of reach.

One of the film's major faults is that it fails to explore the characters of Grace and Nancy fully; all of the women are reduced to being seen as either victims or much worse.

Without question, "Prisoners" works as an effective thriller. The mystery is engaging, the clues are uncovered logically and the motivation for the crimes holds water.

However, where the movie ultimately fails is in its final shot. Instead of adhering to the thematic notion that has been so firmly established, Villeneuve provides the audience with a tiny ray of hope that comes off as cheap and pandering.

Had the filmmaker stuck to his convictions, "Prisoners" would have been a modern masterpiece instead of just a fine thriller that loses its nerve when it matters most.

'Prisoners' (2-1/2 stars out of 4)

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Paul Dano, Maria Bello, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Borde, Erin Gerasimovich and Len Cariou.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve; produced by Kira Davis, Broderick Johnson, Adam Kolbrenner and Andrew Kosove; written by Aaron Guzikowski.

A Warner Brother release. 146 minutes. Rated R (violent content including torture and language throughout). At AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.

Also new in theaters

"Insidious 2" undercut by false start. (2 stars) In recent interviews, director James Wan has expressed the desire to leave the horror genre behind for a time, if not permanently.

Having proven himself with "Saw" (2004), "Insidious" (2010) and "The Conjuring" from earlier this year, he doesn't have much to prove with films of this sort. That each of these films has gotten progressively worse is an example of the law of diminishing returns.

Take his latest, "Insidious: Chapter 2," as evidence. While well-made and occasionally effective, it's not Wan's best work.

He's saddled with a script by frequent collaborator Leigh Whannell that spends far too much time spinning its wheels dealing with red herrings and ineffective scares in the film's first hour, giving it a feeling of inertia that it struggles to shake.

Were the movie subtitled "Paranormal Inactivity," it wouldn't be far wrong.

The movie starts with an extended flashback that adds little to the narrative before picking up immediately where the first film left off. Josh (Patrick Wilson) has just returned from the realm known as the Further where he has rescued his son's soul, which was stuck there.

However, dear old Dad is not quite the same, something that his wife Renai (Rose Byrne) picks up on right away, as well as the fact that there's something still in the house, which poses an obvious threat to her and her children.

What that is and why it's there prompt Josh's mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) to contact paranormal investigators Specs (Whanell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), who attempt to uncover just why these hauntings are continuing.

Their investigation takes far too long to yield results. Along the way, while Wan delivers the occasional scare, the film goes nowhere fast. The quick-cut scares and unannounced jolts that elevated the first episode above other horror fodder are missing, and there's the sense that Whanell is simply padding the script with narrative dead ends to get the production up to a respectable running time.

That being said, the movie's last half-hour is very good. Once we finally get to the Further, the past and the present, the supernatural realm and the world of our own converge and fold in on themselves in a way that's quite clever.

It's so well done I wished that the first hour was worthy of it; however, it seems as though the well that Wan and Whanell have drawn from, at least where this genre is concerned, has gone as dry as an idea that has run its course.

De Niro nearly saves pedestrian "Family." (2-1/2 stars) I wouldn't say that Luc Besson's "The Family" is a good movie, but it's not without its charms, chief among them Robert De Niro.

Having taken on roles outside his comfort zone (the cross-dressing pirate captain in "Stardust," a tortured parole officer in "Stone" and a retired CIA agent in the comedy "Meet the Parents"), it stands to reason that De Niro would eventually get around to skewering his gangster persona, and if nothing else, "The Family" gives him a plausible premise to explore this in.

He's Giovanni Manzoni, a former wiseguy who has ratted out his friends and is now in a witness protection program with his faithful wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), con artist son Warren (John D'Leo) and streetwise daughter Belle (Dianna Agron).

They've just been relocated to a small French town after having blown their cover, something that happens far too frequently as the Manzonis simply can't hide their true natures. Needless to say, they're the bane of Agent Stansfield's (Tommy Lee Jones) existence.

It comes as no surprise that the mobsters looking for the Manzonis track them down and attempt to wipe them out or that Warren and Belle end up turning the local high school upside down with their selfish behavior. However, what writer/director Besson has in store for Giovanni/De Niro is inspired as he has the mobster turn inward by having him write his memoirs, which seems to exacerbate his old behaviors rather than exorcise them.

The movie hits its high point when the would-be author is invited to attend a film screening and discussion, only to find that the feature to be shown is "Goodfellas." At that point, Giovanni realizes that trying to change his stripes is an exercise in futility, and he freely gives inside information on the inner workings of the mob.

You get the sense that perhaps De Niro has come to the same conclusion with his career, and hopefully this is the start of an examination of his screen persona that will ultimately culminate with a film as pointed and fruitful as Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven."

For DVR alerts, film recommen-dations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. For his blog, head to http://www.news-gazette.com/blogs/cinema-scoping. Koplinski can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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