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Prisoners’ is lurid pulp dressed up as high art

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Two stars

Prisoners Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Rated R. Opens Friday.

As if an entire season of a TV show like Broadchurch or The Killing were crammed into two and a half grueling hours, Prisoners tediously lays out every detail of the increasingly despairing efforts to find two missing young girls in a Pennsylvania suburb. The relentlessly downbeat movie takes itself incredibly seriously, and the filmmakers spend much of the first 90 minutes trying to sell the story as a profound meditation on guilt and revenge.

But the last hour reveals Prisoners as nothing more than a cheap thriller with some pseudo-philosophical nonsense tacked on. By the time the real culprit is revealed and has to face down the protagonists, any semblance of introspection or thoughtfulness has disappeared. Cut down to a leaner running time and stripped of its artier pretensions, Prisoners could have been a serviceable thriller, instead of the insufferable chore it ended up as.

Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal do a lot of acting in the movie’s lead roles, Jackman as the father of one of the missing girls and Gyllenhaal as the detective in charge of the case. Jackman’s Keller Dover is a Christian survivalist who doesn’t much care for due process, and when Gyllenhaal’s Det. Loki releases a suspect (Paul Dano) for lack of evidence, Keller decides to take matters into his own hands. Jackman bellows and wails his way through Keller’s descent into vigilantism, but it amounts to very little, especially since the story eventually sidesteps the moral questions altogether in favor of a more lurid, far-fetched climax.

The supporting characters, including Maria Bello as Keller’s wife and Terrence Howard and Viola Davis as the parents of the other missing girl, mostly get crowded out in favor of Jackman and Gyllenhaal’s glowering competition, and even Det. Loki remains underdeveloped, a mess of unexplained personality tics. French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, making his English-language debut here, peddled similar heavy-handed hokum in his 2010 drama Incendies. That one was nominated for an Oscar, so clearly he’s convinced somebody with his portentous nonsense. Given a bigger budget and some major stars, he’s just engaging in the same posturing on a larger scale.

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