After the near perfection of Arrival, I find it easy to forgive director Denis Villeneuve for how impenetrable Enemy was or how contrived Incendies was. Whether you like them or not however, you can’t deny that each of his films has been very unique and interesting in different ways. As my wife, his work so far defies being typed into any one genre and he looks to be continuing with this trend with the upcoming Blade Runner 2049.
Two children, belonging to the Dover and the Birch families, are kidnapped after a Thanksgiving dinner. Police detective Loki is assigned to the case and follows up on a clue that an RV was parked outside in the street where the two girls were playing. They track down the driver, Alex Jones, who behaves suspiciously and seems to have some mental problems but can’t pin anything concrete on him. One of the fathers, Keller Dover, becomes convinced that Alex does know something and is incensed when the police release him. He kidnaps and imprisons Alex, resorting to extreme interrogation methods to force him to reveal what he knows. Meanwhile Loki’s investigation lead him in all manner of unexpected directions including a mummified corpse found in the basement of an elderly priest and a nervous man who attends a candlelight vigil for the two girls but flees when Loki notices him.
Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal anchor this film as Keller and Loki respectively, both delivering extremely intense performances. I believe that this is the first and so far only time they have been in a film together. I am amused that Paul Dano, known for being one of the most punchable faces in Hollywood, appears as Alex and indeed Jackman spends plenty of time punching and doing far worse things to him though those scenes are of course not in the least funny. I like to go into films not knowing anything about them but when the two children were abducted, I felt reasonably safe in predicting how this film would go based on my experience with such thrillers. However Villeneuve manages to surprise me at every turn. Each new plot development deepens the mystery in a completely unexpected direction as Keller and Loki, working independently or even in rivalry with each other, uncover new clues. The result is a tension-filled, gripping emotional roller-coaster.
The torture scenes are absolutely brutal and it is chilling how the Birches go along with it when they find out, reasoning that it may be the only way for them to recover their child. The film is perhaps being a bit too on the nose here, something that Villeneuve seems to have a problem with, by showing that all of the extreme measures that Keller goes for ultimately is for naught. It also relies on coincidental links a bit too much for my liking with the example of how the corpse in the basement eventually links back to the case. The irony of the plot is that while Keller’s suspicions are justified, he end up selling his soul for nothing as it is Loki’s patience and frankly near superhuman powers of observation that actually advance the case. As an object lesson, the film is somewhat clumsy but as a thriller that sucks you in, the execution is impeccable.