A bleak, brutal and smart crime thriller

FILM
PRISONERS
Cert 15 | By Alex Dymoke
Four Stars

PRISONERS is essentially a three-way acting competition between Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Jake Gyllenhaal’s hair. Seriously, Jake Gyllenhaal looks really cool in this movie. Far too cool for a real cop, what with all those tattoos and his shirt done up to the top. But this isn’t the real America. This is the kind of harsh wasteland that apocalypse-bating hicks think America could turn into at any minute. It’s no country for old men. Or young men. Or nine-year-old girls: at a convivial Thanks Giving dinner, Keller (Jackman) and best bud Franklin (Terence Howard) find their daughters have vanished. Everyone thinks the abductor is the unfashionably spectacled, lank-haired creep Alex (Paul Dano) who sleeps in a caravan nearby. And it probably is... but that would be too obvious, right? Or would it?

God is omnipresent in Prisoners, from the tinny incantations of radio preachers to the crosses tattooed on hands and dangling from necks. Such symbols should be a comfort, but instead they usher in a feeling of impending catastrophe. Is this the end of days? Roger Deakins’ beautifully bleak cinematography suggests as much. Rain pounds the street and renders driving treacherous. Inside, the light has an unforgiving hardness to it. The desolation is matched by intense, straight-faced performances from the two leads: Gyllenhaal is magnetic as Loki, an inscrutable but dedicated cop who dresses rockerbilly-style and has “solved every case he’s ever worked on”. What Jackman lacks in emotional depth, he makes up for with impressive facial hair. In Wolverine he had animalistic, scraggly mutton chops. When brought low as Jean Valjean in Les Mis, a stint in a French jail culminated in a footlong facial wilderness. There’s something very protestant-work-ethic about his beard in Prisoners, the way it clings to his chin in the howling wind, all thorny and dense like a hardy piece of scrubland on the weather-facing side of a Colorado mountain. It’s the perfect beard for someone who says portentously “pray for the best, prepare for the worst” and mutters the Lord’s prayer before gunning down a moose (he does both).

His paternal anguish contorts into crazed brutality when Alex is released by police. Loki thinks the caravan enthusiast is too developmentally challenged to be capable of child abduction (he concludes from twenty hours of intensive interviewing that Alex has the IQ of a ten year old). But Keller is sure he’s responsible, so he captures him and tortures him for information: pray for the best... but if you get the worst, imprison someone and smash their fingers with a hammer.

Prisoners is a well-written, suspenseful thriller aimed at adults. The moral quandaries don’t feel contrived, and Jackman successfully manages to appear both monstrous and sympathetic. For the first hour and a half or so (runtime is a long 153 minutes) it is a brilliantly uncompromising depiction of the extreme behaviour to which we are susceptible in the face of a total lack of answers.

If only it had the courage of its convictions and stopped there. Instead, the angels descend and everything is neatly tied up, turning the film from a bleak, suspenseful thriller into a cliched detective story. What’s more, in the eager pursuit of a particular ending, the film sacrifices some of it’s integrity, rewarding the blind retributive lashing out that it first presented as an aberration.

It’s still an intensely absorbing experience, though, with a career best performance from Jackman.

THEATRE
SECRET THEATRE
Hammersmith Lyric | By Steve Dinneen
Two Stars

THE Hammersmith Lyric is getting a lick of paint. A fairly major one. Once upon a time, this would have meant shuttering the theatre – but not any more. These days, staging a play in a construction site is a boon. Stick the word “secret” in front of it and you have yourself a marketing coup.

The Lyric is staging a series of Secret Theatre plays amid the detritus of renovation, although beyond a few sheets of plastic and going in through the tradesman’s entrance, you’d never know.

The premise of the series is that you don’t know what’s on until it starts (I saw “Show 2”).

It’s a spirited performance from a 10-strong troupe, but one that never captures the energy or immediacy of the famous text upon which it is based.

Sergo Vares plays the central role, following in the footsteps of a Hollywood giant. It’s an impossible ideal to live up to; alas, he doesn’t.

At almost three hours, it’s a fairly long haul; the first half drags a little, although the pace picks up as it lurches towards its dark conclusion.

It’s a cracking choice of play – few will be disappointed when they realise what it is – but one that’s let down by a production that veers a little close to community-theatre.

FILM
RUNNER RUNNER
Cert 15 | By Melissa York
Two Stars

LIFE is just one big gamble for Justin Timberlake’s character Richie Furst in Runner Runner.

It is this inability to separate reality from gambling that leads the dean of Princeton University (where Furst is studying Maths) to threaten him with expulsion.

The little rascal has been getting students hooked on online gambling in exchange for cash from shady casino websites to pay his tuition fees.

Furst attempts to fix this problem by gambling his tuition fees away on a shady casino website where he inexplicably loses all of his money.

This is where my sympathy with Timberlake’s character started to wane.

Then – in what can only be explained as an attempt to sweep the board at the Chump of the Year awards – Furst decides to travel to Costa Rica to confront the head of aforementioned shady website Midnight Black and convince him he was cheated out of his tuition fee money.

This is where I totally lost sympathy for Rich – the film had been running for ten minutes. After a poor attempt at persuasion from his one nameless friend, Furst gatecrashes a casino party and finds himself in front of Ben Affleck’s Ivan Block, evil Midnight Black extraordinaire, who immediately makes Furst his protégée. Without giving too much away, the job isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

British beaut Gemma Arterton also smoulders her way into the plot as Block’s on/off girlfriend Rebecca Shafran. Those looking forward to seeing the RADA graduate in a meatier role will be disappointed because this part requires her to do little more than look fantastic in clinging cocktail dresses.

All the compelling elements of Runner Runner are down to the suspenseful direction by The Lincoln Lawyer’s Ben Furman and the exotic yet gritty location, excellently showcased by cinematographer Mauro Fiore.

But tension on pretty beaches can only get you so far. The characters never blossom into human beings and the plot plods along with all the predictability of the most pedestrian of crime thrillers.

Timberlake has far too much swagger to play wide-eyed innocence convincingly and, while Affleck and Arterton try their best, both roles are not worth their time and talents.