(director: Denis Villenueve; screenwriter: Aaron Guzikowski; cinematographer: Roger Deakins; editors: Joel Cox/Gary Roach; music: Johann Johannsson; cast: Hugh Jackman (Keller Dover), Jake Gyllenhaal (Det. Loki), Viola Davis (Nancy Birch), Maria Bello (Grace Dover), Terrence Howard (Franklin Birch), Paul Dano (Alex Jones), Melissa Leo (Holly Jones), Dylan Minnette (Ralph Dover), Erin Gerasimovich (Anna), Kyla-Drew Simmons (Joy Birch), Wayne Duvall (Captain Richard O’Malley), Len Cariou (Father Patrick Dunn), David Dastmalchian (Bob Taylor), Zoe Soul (Eliza Birch); Runtime: 153; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Broderick Johnson/Kira Davis/Andrew A. Kosove/Adam Kolbrenner; Warner Bros.; 2013)
A chilling suspense thriller about child kidnappings in rural America that is brilliantly directed by French Canadian director Denis Villenueve.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A chilling suspense thriller about child kidnappings in rural America that is brilliantly directed by French Canadian director Denis Villenueve(“Maelstrom”/”Incendies“/ “Polytechnique”), in his Hollywood debut. It holds your attention throughout, even in its slow pace, as it shows us there’s no place free from sickos and their violence, in America, even in an idyllic, unprejudiced, crime-free suburban community. The ambitious whodunit is craftily written by Aaron Guzikowski, whose screenplay blends together familiar suspense genre tropes with a few surprises and an underscored message that whether we believe it or not we are all prisoners of something or other, especially our own demons.

A Pennsylvania small-town survivalist-minded struggling building contractor, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), while peacefully celebrating Thanksgiving with his wife Grace (Maria Bello), teenage son Ralph (Dylan Minnette), and six-year-old daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) at the home of his black neighbors, Nancy and Franklin Birch (Viola Davis & Terrence Howard) and their teenage daughter Eliza (Zoe Soul) and seven-year-old daughter Joy (Kyla-Drew Simmons), discover after dessert that the two little girls have been abducted after going outside to play while unsupervised. The only clue was that an RV was parked in the neighborhood, that had previously drawn the attention of the playful little girls before their disappearance.

When the prime suspect, a creepy inarticulate young man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano), is located in the RV and arrested and grilled by the lead investigator detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), the town’s best cop, he’s subsequently released for lack of evidence. The volatile, grief-stricken Keller, who will do anything to recover his little girl and feels he’s in a race against time, decides to take matters in his own hands before too much more time elapses and kidnaps the mentally retarded Alex, an orphan who lives with his aunt Holly Jones (Melissa Leo), and holds him prisoner in an abandoned building his suicide prison guard dad used to own. He is so sure the kid is guilty that he tortures him to tell where he hid the girls. The torture is rationalized because once the suspect snatched his girl, the carpenter believes he forfeited his rights to be treated as a human being. Meanwhile a number of false leads come up as red herrings, such as a dead body in a priest’s (Len Cariou) basement and a slimy nervous single young man (David Dastmalchian) attending the town vigil for the missing children is spotted by an attentive clerk buying children’s clothes in the local department store.

The pic is seemingly concerned over ethical questions about how far can an irate victimized dad go against someone suspected of such a horrible crime to his loved one (as the film questions if torture, like in Abu Ghraib, can ever be justified even if it saves the lives of future victims).

The gray wintry landscape sets the gloomy mood for such an exasperating story (the great visuals are from acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins). Villenueve frames his ethical questions around the acts of a grieving father and asks what alternatives are there for a citizen if unsatisfied with how the authorities handle your life and death problem. The carpenter is pictured as a man already living on the edge in preparation of an apocalypse, whose illegal actions, caused by a distrust of the authorities, take him over the edge and into dangerous territory where violence has no limits.

I found it to be a fascinating watch for many reasons, despite some of the base things I question about the exploitative way it handled its far-reaching main character. Not the least of my reasons for enjoying the film so much was how it was effectively and suspense-fully directed, its fine technical achievements without the need of CGI, its assured way of telling its story and because of the great acting by the talented cast–especially by the cool obsessive detective portrayal by Gyllenhaal, who grounds the pic with a pleasing central figure. There’s also an excellent fiery performance by Jackman, the devout Christian dad viewed as the family protector with a damaged soul. Not to be overlooked is the performance by Melissa Leo: she delivers a subtle convincing one, as a ludicrous backwoods character with many guarded secrets.