Lone Justice. Revenge.
Taking the law into your own hands. For decades, these things have been the raw meat of Hollywood action thrillers — the sort of movies that serve up vigilante heroism as ruthless, bloodthirsty entertainment. It’s not hard to see why: In a world where a great many of us carry around petty (or not so petty) resentments, revenge offers a special form of catharsis. It’s about people doing what, at certain points, we all fantasize about doing. Just think of Charles Bronson, a walking statue of stoic wrath in Death Wish (1974), as he mows down criminals to avenge the death of his wife. (What he did for love!) Or Mel Gibson in Mad Max (1979), telling the hooligan he has handcuffed to an explosive that he will have time to save himself if he saws through his own ankle. Or Uma Thurman in Kill Bill — Vol. 1 (2003), slicing and dicing her way through armies to get to the scoundrel who left her for dead. Or Russell Crowe in Gladiator (2000), turning himself into the warrior-slave rock star of the Colosseum as he waits to force the emperor to meet his maker. Revenge in these movies is mean and nasty, and it’s also good, clean, righteous fun.
But then there’s the kind of movie that salutes lone-wolf justice and, at the same time, makes you feel the spiritual toll it takes — the kind of thriller that’s exciting, cathartic, and powerfully disturbing all at once. Prisoners (rated R, out Sept. 20) is that kind of movie: It’s rooted in 40 years of Hollywood vigilante films, yet it also breaks audacious new ground. The film stars Hugh Jackman, in a staggering performance of unbridled rage that’s unlike anything he has done before, in the role of Keller Dover, a brawny survivalist who is also a gentle-voiced suburban dad. On a rainy Thanksgiving afternoon, Keller brings his wife (Maria Bello) and kids over to the home of neighborhood friends (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis). The two families eat, drink, and joke around, and nothing too remarkable happens — until everyone realizes that Keller’s little daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), has left the house and disappeared, along with the other family’s daughter, Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons).
A search turns up nothing, but later that night the police find a pale, mute young creep (Paul Dano) in smudged aviator frames and oily long hair hanging around in his skeevy RV camper — the same vehicle that the girls were trying to crawl up the ladder of that afternoon. The cops, led by an uncharacteristically moody and badass Jake Gyllenhaal, arrest this damaged-looking sad sack, interrogate him, and find no evidence. So they let him go. But Keller, after an encounter with the suspect outside the police station, is convinced that he’s guilty. So he takes action. He kidnaps the creep, brings him to an abandoned apartment building, and beats him to a bloody pulp, over and over again. He threatens to kill the young man unless he confesses. But the suspect/victim says nothing.