How far should a parent be willing to go to save the life of a beloved child? That is the basic question behind this long (two and a half hours) but riveting movie.
Blue-collar neighbours Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard, together with their wives (Maria Bello and Viola Davis) and children are celebrating Thanksgiving together in a snowy Pennsylvania suburb. When the young daughters of each family go outside after lunch and subsequently disappear, a range of emotions, including panic and anger, surface. The girls had earlier played outside a parked camper van, with the driver obviously inside, and the now missing van is the first object of the police search. It is soon spotted at a nearby service area, and when the driver attempts to flee as the police approach, he is apprehended. However Alex Jones (beautifully played with a minimum of fuss by the versatile Paul Dano) has a mental age of ten years -- despite having a valid driving license -- and is soon released from police custody, since he is unable to furnish any coherent explanation for his behaviour. He returns to the home of his aunt, Melissa Leo, who has looked after him from an early age.
The police investigation is being headed by a fiercely determined Jake Gyllenhaal, who has a sterling record in solving local crimes, but a chance remark from Dano to Jackman, makes the latter 100% certain that the child-like Jones should never have been set free and that he does indeed know what has become of the missing girls. So while the police futilely search the nearby woods, Jackman goes into overdrive and abducts the simple and very frightened young man. In the attempt to force information from him, Jackman employs increasing deranged methods of torturing him, even after the police have identified another potential suspect. First Howard, and then Davis, are unwitting accomplices to Jackman's brutality, but there is no stopping the ferocious bereaved father. (Bello meanwhile has taken to sedatives and her bed in a complete withdrawal from the hopelessness of the quest). When bloodied garments belonging to the two girls are found in the second suspect's house (after he manages to blow his head off while under arrest!), Jackman still thinks Dano know where to find their dead bodies.
It's a very intense turn from Jackman, and some reckon it's his best performance ever, but I still have trouble accepting his not quite believable and overly dramatic acting chops; he's much more at home in musicals and light comedy (if one ignores his supposedly iconic turn as Wolverine). Gyllenhaal in contrast gives a barn-storming performance, seething in his anger when he believes he had let the families down, and Dano -- as mentioned above -- is, as always, creepily effective.
The fraught action and seething emotions on display are reinforced by the increasingly stormy rainy and snowy weather, beautifully captured by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins. This movie is the first English-language film from the French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve whose "Incendies" was Oscar-nominated in 2010, and he has since moved on to Hollywood blockbusters. It's not meant to be a 'feel-good' movie, even if there is an ultimately satisfying denouement, but the gritty handling of difficult subject matter and the relentless pacing keeps the viewer on the edge of his seat throughout.
I confess that the film's 'big reveal' did come as a surprise to me, but the twisty action -- some of which seemed confusing at the time -- all turned out to be logically related: a dead man in the parish priest's basement, a local history of missing children, hordes of creepy snakes and an obsession with mazes, all finally made perfect sense. And, for once, I liked the fact that everything was not tidily wrapped up in the last minutes, leaving the viewer to decide what might happen next. Would the now missing Jackman be found in time to save his life? And if so, would Gyllenhaal arrest him for Dano's torture? There were several many sets of prisoners to be reckoned with in this very absorbing flick.