The first movie I ever reviewed for a newspaper was a revenge thriller called “Extremities.” It starred Farrah Fawcett as a victim who takes her rapist hostage while her two roommates ponder the ethical dilemma of beating him to death with a fireplace poker. Aesthetically and intellectually it was a failure, but because I was a young man and subconsciously felt I should suffer for keeping a Charlie’s Angels poster in my dorm room, I gave it a passing grade.
Half a lifetime later, I’m not so forgiving of bad movies. “Prisoners” has a pre-release buzz and Oscar nominees on both sides of the camera, but it’s preposterous schlock masquerading as art. The emperor’s clothes are so porous, they must have been beaten with a fireplace poker.
You know you’re on thin ice when you hear the protagonist reciting a prayer before you see his face.
Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is stalking a deer with his adolescent son, so the prayer is a clue that the Pennsylvania roofer is either divinely attuned to the cycle of life or a bloody hypocrite. It’s more like the latter, because when Dover’s daughter and another girl disappear while the extended family is eating the meat for Thanksgiving, the deer-hunter turns into Mr. Hyde.
The suspect in the abduction is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a simple-minded young man who trolls the neighborhood in an old RV. When he is cleared by local detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), Dover takes matters into his own hands, kidnapping and torturing Alex in an abandoned apartment. Riding shotgun is Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), the father of the other missing girl. Like Franklin’s wife (Viola Davis), he’s only partly appalled by Dover’s violence, deciding “Ya gotta do, what ya gotta do.”
It’s hard enough to accept that beloved star Jackman would play a character who is so sadistic, but Dover is also dumb. When the ostensible hero swigs liquor in Loki’s car while demanding justice, he forfeits the benefit of the doubt.
Stupidity suffuses the script, written by “Contraband” scribe Aaron Guzikowski and directed by French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”). Subplots such as a priest who keeps a dead body in his dungeon are left hanging in the noxious breeze. Meanwhile, a detective who claims he’s never failed to crack a case ignores the abundant evidence of a torture chamber on the other side of town. And a different detective professes ignorance that a suspect died a grisly death in the police station the day before, even though it was the front-page story in the Daily Review. (The name of that newspaper is typical of the production values, which are as generic as the characters. Acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins has rarely photographed such an ugly film.)
The silence of the lambs who mistake this trash for treasure is deafening. Like the eponymous prisoners, you have to drink a lot of Kool-Aid to endure this torture.