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A beautiful movie shackled to a terrible script

Hugh Jackman in Prisoners. <<Warner Bros. Pictures>>

Two little girls go outside to play and never return. That’s the chilling premise for Prisoners, a beautiful, artistic film that unfortunately stole its overlong script from a low-rate episode of Law & Order.
    As the Dover and Birch families become more desperate to find their girls, each member has a markedly different reaction. The Birches (Viola Davis and Terrence Howard) become involved with the search crews, spending their nights patrolling the woods. Grace Dover (Maria Bello) suffers a breakdown and spends her days in a drugged-out stupor. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a survivalist and carpenter, goes the Liam Neeson route, kidnapping the main suspect to torture him into revealing the girls’ location.
    As Keller finds inventive uses for hammers, fists and showers, we’re asked to re-evaluate the merits of a vigilante culture. Meanwhile, detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is doggedly working the case.
    Director Dennis Villeneuve (Incendies) crafts beautiful frames with cinematographer Roger Deakins, each one dark and filled with interesting detail. Prisoners is one of the most stylishly shot films of the year. That’s why it’s a shame the rest of it is so bad.
    With silly plotting, ridiculous twists and a perpetrator so glaringly obvious and stupid at the same time, Guzikowski’s script is so bad you’ll wonder if anyone read it before signing on to make the film. It’s even more shameful considering the story has such potential.
    It’s also disheartening that a film so concerned with the whereabouts of two little girls has so little regard for women in general. Davis and Bello, both fantastic performers, get little to do but cry and pray their husbands think of a solution.
    Occasionally, a tour-de-force performance can overcome a silly script, but not here. Considering the caliber of talent Villeneuve hired, this is an achievement in terrible filmmaking. Jackman, a trained stage actor, seems to be acting for the back rows of the theater: He wheezes every breath, flares his eyes and shouts each line. Because his performance is so intense, there’s no progression in it. Compare that with Gyllenhaal, who clearly acts for film. His subtle performance is filled with small physical ticks and quirks that work well in film, where small details are caught by the camera and projected on a 12-foot screen. When Jackman and Gyllenhaal share the screen, it’s a disaster.
    As you can’t turn the volume off and just watch in a movie theater, going is a terrible investment of your movie money.

Poor Thriller • R • 153 mins.