The acting is great, the directing is top-flight, the script is suitably complex, the atmosphere is carefully creepily nuanced, but this is one depressing film. And its carefully-orchestrated religious themes are decidedly dark.
Hugh Jackman breaks out of his super-hero type-casting to play the role of Keller Dover, a working-man suburbanite who owns his own little carpentry/handyman business. He has a nice wife, Grace (Maria Bello), a doting teenage son, and a cute little daughter, and before they all walk down the street to share Thanksgiving dinner with their friends, the Birch family, Keller takes his son deer hunting. The film opens with Keller reciting the Lord’s Prayer just before his son pulls the trigger, bagging his first kill. They gleefully bring the fresh venison meat to the Thanksgiving feast at the Birch house.
Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) and his wife Nancy (Viola Davis) have two daughters, about the ages of the Dover kids, so they’re all friends together. The first time the younger girls wanted to get some toys at the other house, Keller made sure his son went with them. The second time, the girls decided to go on their own, and nobody realized they were gone, until…they were gone.
Yes, it’s every parent’s nightmare, and this happens to all four parents at once. At first, they are only slightly panicked, thinking they’ll just search the neighborhood, but then, the horror begins to set in: the girls have vanished.
The four parents differ greatly in their reactions. Franklin just seems stunned into inertia. Nancy is so shell-shocked she can hardly speak. Grace retreats into sleeping pills. But Keller is so filled with rage that he doesn’t even bother to contain his anger, with anyone. And, though a recovering alcoholic, he starts drinking again. And when he tries to pray the Lord’s prayer again, this time he stumbles over, “….As we forgive those….”
Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned to the case, and he takes that responsibility very seriously. He spends practically every waking moment those first few days working the leads, knowing that time is of the essence in a child abduction scenario. He can’t rule out any possibilities, including the involvement of the families of the victims. This “waste of time” makes Keller even more furious, so he decides to take matters into his own hands, by interrogating a “person of interest” himself. He becomes obsessed with this, at the expense of abandoning his wife and son when they could sorely use his emotional support. He enlists a reluctant Franklin to assist him, and when Nancy finds out about it, she encourages Franklin to help, because now they’re all so incredibly desperate to find their daughters.
Director Denis Villeneuve goes for stark winter landscapes, sleet storms, hard rains, and characters teetering on the edge of insanity. He’s also unafraid to introduce religious themes: part of Loki’s investigation into local sex offenders turns up a priest who kept a corpse in his basement, claiming the man confessed to abducting children, defining his despicable behavior as warfare against God. And it does seem that parents in this kind of extreme emotional situation, after a few fervent unanswered prayers, do tend to lose their religion. So is this the work of the devil?
Well, it’s definitely a descent into the Abyss, both for the characters on the screen, and, by extension, the viewers. If you can sit through this one, you will not be unaffected.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas