Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano
In June, when I put the trailer for this film up on my blog, my first reaction was "whoa". It looked heavy, intense, and perhaps too realistic. I was reluctant to see it because I wasn't sure how I could keep from putting myself into the story and becoming too involved. I have kids, and I didn't know if I could enjoy a movie about this topic, even if it was well done. But I figured I should give it a shot. After all, Jackman and Gyllenhaal are both good actors, and their co-stars (Paul Dano, Viola Davis, Terrance Howard, Melissa Leo, Maria Bello) are all solid as well. I had never seen a movie by director Denis Villeneuve, but even the trailer showed a simple style and a film that was going to be highly reliant on emotion & acting, not amazing cinematography and artistic directing. Anyway, I gave it a shot, despite my reservations, and I'm very glad I did.
The story follows the Dover and Birch families of Pennsylvania; your average middle-class families, each with an older child and a younger girl. On Thanksgiving the two daughters, Anna and Joy, go missing while walking from one house to the other. The only clue to their disappearance is an old RV that had been parked nearby and that is now gone. And when Detective Loki finds the RV and arrests the man inside it, the families are sure that the police have got their man and that they will get their children back. But when no evidence is found and the suspect Alex Jones turns out to be a simple young man, Loki has no choice but to release him and start the search again. But Anna's father has no intention of letting Alex escape, as he is convinced that this man knows where his daughter is. As Loki continues to investigate, Dover takes matters into his own hands, setting off a string of events that will ultimately lead to an unexpected climax.
The content of the film was as hard to take as I imagined it would be. It was difficult not to set my own family in a similar situation; how would I feel, what would I do. And the raw realism of all involved was brutal; the loss of their children, the hopelessness of being so helpless, the intensity of the anger Dover feels toward Jones, the man he is certain holds the key to his daughter's life. I was emotionally invested and at the film's mercy from the very beginning. Now, I can see how if you don't have a family, if you can keep at a distance from the story, how those strong dramatic pulls wouldn't have as much effect on you. And lacking that, perhaps the plot seems recycled, a kidnapping or serial killer film you've seen before. Even I can admit that I've seen this done similarly (Zodiac) and done better (Se7en). But for me the hook was there and therefor I let myself get swept away, possibly forgiving some minor flaws.
As far as the acting goes, there were some highs and there were some lows. Hugh Jackman was quite good as the father who will do anything but doesn't quite know what to do. He was believable, controlled at times, and explosive when it was called for. Jake Gyllenhaal was also pretty solid as the young cop who perhaps has demons and is perhaps too invested in the fate of these girls. There was a chance there for the movie to go full Hollywood, to give us more of Detective Loki's back story, but they avoided that pitfall and left most of his character up to our imagination. And for the most part, that was done very well, letting the audience figure things out without having it spelled out for us. That is, until the end, when unfortunately the "bad guy" has a badly acted monologue telling us why they do what they do. That quickly brought the movie down a notch and hurt the realism that was working so well up until that point. But even with a mediocre ending, I found the film to be heart-pounding, believable, upsetting, well-acted, and an overall success.