Red Herring: It's what's for dinner
Denis Villeneuve
Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo
The Setup: 
After children are abducted, a father takes the law into his own hands.

So this looked promising and hard-hitting. It has a good cast, and the trailer casts it as a father taking the law into his own hands after the police fail to find his missing child. But the reality is that there's a great deal more to it than is made out in the trailer, and all that extra stuff just makes the film lose focus as it peters to an end, the final result considerably less than the sum of its parts, less In The Bedroom than one of those 90s Silence of the Lambs knockoffs, like Taking Lives or Along Came a Spider.

It is Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania, all cloudy skies and bare trees. Hugh Jackman as Keller Donner and his wife and two kids go over to the house of Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, who have two kids of their own. Later, the two young girls get permission to go back to Donner's house, and never come back. Suspicion falls on a creepy old RV seen parked in the neighborhood earlier, which is soon found, containing Paul Dano as Alex. He is arrested, but seems to have severely stunted mental activity, to the point that he is ruled out almost immediately as a suspect. We are introduced to hotshot detective Loki, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. He has neck and knuckle tattoos, and is reputed never to have left a case unsolved.

So far, quite good, and surprisingly suspenseful. Keller doesn't think Loki is doing enough, and is convinced that Alex knows where the girls are. The movie nicely provides enough ambiguity that we aren't sure if Alex does or not. When Alex is released, Keller kidnaps him and keeps him in an abandoned house, where he and the more reluctant Howard torture him for information. He doesn't give any. In here, we also meet Alex's creepy aunt, played by Melissa Leo.

But the movie has a lot more than the trailer told you, which is both good and bad. First, Loki goes over to the house of a priest, finds a hidden chamber in the basement, which conceals a dried corpse wearing a Celtic maze pendant. There is also a mysterious, creepy man hanging around the candlelight vigil, who bolts when spotted. Keller's wife (played by Maria Bello) is on prescription meds and sleeping all the time. Keller is gone almost all of the time, torturing Alex, who is soon quite swollen and bloody. Then the creepy guy starts breaking into the houses of the victims! Keller, not getting any answers, puts Alex in a dark room built in a bathtub, where he can douse him with freezing or scalding water at will. Loki arrests the creepy guy, who has mazes drawn all over the walls, and numerous locked, child-size boxes. Those boxes turn out to contain (surprise!) snakes and children's clothes, all bloody. Loki is remarkably unfazed by the presence of numerous free snakes, especially as he has no idea whether or not they are poisonous.

Loki practices some police brutality on the creepy guy, which causes him to kill himself. Before he did, however, he was drawing a Celtic maze, amazingly like the one around the dead guy from the basement's neck, which you will realize instantly, but will take detective Loki about ten years to connect. Then Loki realizes that Keller is missing a lot, and starts zeroing in his hideout and torture place. Keller, recovering alcoholic, starts hittin' the sauce--and I don't mean the cucumber-dill sauce. Then Keller identifies the bloody clothing from the creepy guy's house: so the kids are dead! Then Loki finds Alex in his torture spot, which comes to exactly nothing. Then Howard's daughter is found: so the kids are alive! She says that Keller was at their place of abduction, and he suddenly realizes who has those kids! What he does not have is any closure or sense that he was totally wrong to have tortured Alex for so long.

And now, the shocking and frankly unbelievable conclusion. Are you sure you want to know? Are you prepared for the ultra-mega-whammy that is sure to rend asunder your comfy cocoon of complacency? Keller realizes that the real killer is Alex's aunt. It would hap that she and her husband--that's the mummy with the Celtic maze pendant--lost a child, and thus began a "war with God" which consisted of abducting and eventually killing kids. And guess what? Alex actually isn't her nephew, but one of the first children they abducted! And guess what else? The creepy guy isn't related to any of this at all, but just a copycat creepazoid who buys the same clothes the abducted kids had, and puts fake blood on them as though he himself killed them. He also buries child's mannequins in the yard. So Keller goes over to the aunt's, and is thrown at gunpoint into the hole in the ground that comes standard to all serial killers' residences. There he finds his daughter's whistle, which, by the way, we have seen her present to him in a dream. Will that be his salvation? I honestly don't know!

Then Loki goes over to the house, kills the aunt, and finds the girl! She is drugged (although we see that she did not just receive a fresh dose and is probably just a little woozy) so he chooses NOT to call 911, as any of us might, because that would preclude his dangerous, limited-visibility frantic drive through oncoming traffic to deliver her to an emergency room! (Which, by the way, is one of the photographic highlights of the film.) Then, the next night, he returns to the scene of the crime and... does he hear a faint whistle? Coming from somewhere?

So there was a lot that was good, even great, about it. The cinematography throughout is first-rate, casting this story in a world of cloudy skies and rainy days and wet windows, and just looking fantastic throughout. Sure, Silence of the Lambs might have done it first, but it still works. And the performances, especially by Jackman and Gyllenhaal, are excellent. And the movie successfully generates a lot of suspense in key scenes, some of which had me looking away, and is involving and propulsive for the first hour.

But then... it just starts to meander. The whole vigilante torture angle is never really brought to closure, leaving it just a huge open hole at the end. One could argue, as some reviews have, that this film tacitly endorses torture, as Keller is revealed to be on the right track. Loki is an interesting character, but his quirks are never given backstory, and he finally ends up as just another movie ultra-cop. Plus, one could have a drinking game centering on every time he breaks down a door. Then there's the matter of the massive red herring that takes up so much of the running time, and amounts to nothing, except a waste of your time. And the running time itself becomes an issue, because the air starts leaking out of this story around ninety minutes in, leaving a whole hour of slow deflation to go.

But the main thing for me that takes this out of the realm of the serious and starts to push it into airport novel territory is this imagining of a lurid shadow world of serial killers that lurks on the edges of our secure communities, with creeps who hide bodies in basements and bury mannequins and fake child deaths and keep snakes in boxes... not to mention extremely specious motivations for going on a child-killing crusade. It's a small degree that separates the under-the-veneer corruption of Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks from something like this, which seems to be about tickling the worst fears about the creepy unsocialized rural lower classes in the minds of affluent suburban parents in mega-mansions.

My viewing buddy and a reader who wrote me both liked it a lot and believe I'm being too hard on it, but again, it's the disappointment at something that casts itself as a serious film, had so much promise, and so many excellent elements, that ended up as something far lesser. If it was pulp from the start I wouldn't have cared.

Should you watch it: 

It has many good elements, but you can wait for some medium that allows you to fast-forward.