Prisoners is a movie that wants to tie us in knots, and does a good, nasty job of it. The mystery at the center of the film seems straightforward, and its solution close at hand. But the story opens up like a flayed chest—horrible things happen—and before long we realize that we don't really know what's going on.
The movie opens in a snowy Pennsylvania suburb (captured with shivery expertise by cinematographer Roger Deakins). It's Thanksgiving, and a rough-hewn carpenter named Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) have gathered for dinner at the home of their friends Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis). Each family has a small daughter, and when the girls go outside to play we see them clambering around on a shabby RV that's parked down the street, apparently unattended. By the time the parents realize that the kids are nowhere to be found, we see that the RV has disappeared as well.
A gloomy detective named Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned to the case, and he quickly tracks the RV down. It belongs to a pathetic weirdo named Alex (Paul Dano), who peers out at the world through thick glasses and a curtain of greasy hair. He looks like just the kind of creep who might abduct small children. But on a visit to Alex's kindly aunt (Melissa Leo), Loki is told that his suspect has the mental faculties of a 10-year-old, and is incapable of planning much of anything. When forensic techs find no evidence in the RV to connect Alex with the kidnapping, Loki has no choice but to turn him loose. Keller flips out—he's convinced Alex is guilty, and he knows that, given the chance, he could force him to reveal what he has done with the girls. Soon Alex has gone missing as well.
The movie begins with a voiceover recitation of the Lord's Prayer, and other emblems of Christian faith slowly accumulate: one character has a small cross tattooed on his hand; another has a basement full of Catholic statuary; as winter approaches, Christmas lights appear. Loki digs up reports of other area kidnappings that date back more than 20 years. One of his sources talks about "a war against God." Or is it God who's at war with these hapless people? In an abandoned building where he's trying to torture the truth out of Alex—and failing—Keller erupts in frustration: "Why are you making me do this?" he rasps.
The script, by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband), gives the actors a lot to work with, and they dig into it. Jackman dominates the screen as a man whose Biblical fury rages unabated even as doubts begin to mount about the terrible things he's doing. It's a powerful performance, and it nearly eclipses Gyllenhaal, whose character seems meant to embody an opposing principle of dogged determination. The actor's muted intensity is compelling, in its way; but apart from Loki's rather un-cop-like array of crude tattoos, the character is flat. We never learn anything about him; he has no friends or outside interests, and he remains a cipher throughout the film.
In the end, the picture's extensive religious embroidery doesn't add up to much (naming Gyllenhaal's character after the devious god of Norse mythology adds up to nothing). And while the endless rain and snow in which the action unfolds suggest a universe of pitiless indifference to the tormented souls flailing around in it, this isn't a deep-thought movie. Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, stepping up to the major league after the arthouse success of his Oscar-nominated Incendies, has crafted a big, tense, gaudy thriller, and that's enough. The movie's pop Guignol recalls The Silence of the Lambs, and also draws on David Fincher's Zodiac. But it has a twisted, unsavory charge of its own, and it holds you through two and a half hours, right up to the big reveal at the end—which, for a change, is a real surprise.
Ron Howard's Rush is a Grand Prix movie for people with no interest in championship auto racing or, for that matter, in cars at all. Howard, whose pictures have generally borne little distinctive directorial stamp, reveals here an impressive aptitude for balancing memorable characters and fiery action. The many race-track sequences, shot by Anthony Dod Mantle (Danny Boyle's master of the teeming screen), have an exhilarating sweep—a true rush. But the, script, by Peter Morgan (who also wrote Howard's Frost/Nixon), never yields its focus on the pair of legendary true-life competitors at the center of the story. And the actors who play them—Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl—own the movie from start to finish.
Hemsworth (of Thor and The Cabin in the Woods) is James Hunt, a jaunty Brit determined to unseat Niki Lauda (Brühl), the arrogant Austrian who holds the world Formula One racing championship. The two men's personal antipathy is inevitable. Hunt is a handsome charmer, a womanizer who knocks back glasses of champagne before climbing into his lethal machine. The press and the fans love Hunt; everybody hates the cold and obsessive Lauda, a guy who knows more about setting up Ferraris than his mechanics, and makes a point of telling them so.
Brühl, who appeared in Inglourious Basterds and Julie Delpy's 2 Days in New York, pulls off the difficult trick of making us care about this fundamentally unlikeable character. We see that he's simply hardwired to win, and has no interest in anything else, least of all the sort of glittery popularity in which Hunt routinely basks. And with his prominent overbite, he knows he'll never compete with Hunt's movie-star looks, either—but he doesn't care. "I know I look like a rat," he says. "But a rat is smart." The two men's face-to-face encounters always end badly, with each of them walking away muttering, "Asshole."
The movie's female characters are ancillary. Most are hot racing groupies in expensive '70s hipsterwear, on hand to provide glamorous background. But there's also Suzy (Olivia Wilde), a model the habitually randy Hunt actually marries. (When she ultimately leaves him—for Richard Burton!—he tosses off her desertion with a quip for the press: "My wife has found a new backer.") And Lauda discovers at least one person willing to put up with him—a simpatico beauty named Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara).
But the story is otherwise firmly committed to the 1976 Formula One season, with teams of top drivers making their way around the international Grand Prix circuit from France and Germany to Brazil, South Africa and, ultimately, Japan, on a track laid out at the foot of Mount Fuji. Along the way there's a horrific pileup at Germany's Nürburgring ("The Graveyard," as the drivers call it), followed by some really harrowing hospital scenes. At the end, the characters of Hunt and Lauda are illuminated in new and unexpected ways—and the big winner turns out to be this unexpectedly rousing movie itself.