Fear at the movies is like water, earth, or air. It's elemental. Horror movies are the ideal format to exploit that fear. They make their living off the worst-case scenario: death. Often, that fear feasts on adolescents and the horny. But it's most relentlessly focused on the family. "Obsessed" might be the more accurate word. A child fears losing a parent — to Satan, to bogeymen, to ghosts, to insanity. The parent fears losing a child. Sometimes, one simply fears what the other has become — a child demon and an ax-swinging monster. Scary movies dramatize that terror and exploit that dread — with tales of possession and abduction and backstabbing, literal and otherwise.
This month is a bonanza for that kind of family horror movie. There are at least four variations playing in movie theaters right now. Prisoners is the starriest of them, and the least convincing by a wide margin (and that's with one of the four movies — Adore — being about two mothers who sleep with each other's sons). Prisoners concocts a classic nightmare scenario. Two married couples in a sleepy Pennsylvania town celebrate Thanksgiving together. After dinner, each couple's younger child — little girls, 6 and 7 years old — go off to play and never return.
The police are brought in and a young detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) is put on the case. A suspicious young suspect named Alex Jones (Paul Dano) is taken into custody and released. Alex wears windowpane glasses, doesn't appear to have washed his hair in weeks, and mumbles so softly that I actually found myself leaning forward whenever he opened his mouth. Even the cops know this kid is too obvious to be true. Surely, they've seen Peter Lorre in, say, M, Kevin Spacey in Se7en, and whatever it was that Stanley Tucci was doing in The Lovely Bones.
For the father of one of the girls, letting Alex go must be some kind of farce. His name is Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman). He's some kind of carpenter–survivalist–truck driver, and he's in-effing-tense. Outside the police station, Keller incites an altercation with Alex, upsetting the boy's aunt (Melissa Leo) and causing a scene. When Alex continues his movie-lunatic tribute and whispers something to his assailant, Keller explodes some more. With Alex free, Keller decides to kidnap him and chain him up inside an abandoned apartment building across town, where his plan is to torture him until he breaks.
Jackman is still in his phase of high-masculine misery. He has snuffed out the joy that made him a star. He just wants to brood now, but it's unbecoming. Jackman lacks the lightness that, say, Mel Gibson could bring to despair. He's drawn to this idea of vengeance and suffering as rites of maleness. So it's good-bye to subtlety and hello to growling in every single scene. The entire performance is an exclamation point, and he swings it like a baseball bat.
Keller's captive is a secret he keeps from the police, his teenage son (Dylan Minnette), and his wife (Maria Bello), who spends the movie depressed on a diet of prescription pills. He chooses to share his poor decision with Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), his friend and the father of the other missing girl. (Viola Davis plays Mrs. Birch.) They're men of so many ostensible differences (in class, temperament, and taste) that you'd really like to know what binds their families close enough to make them the sole participants of the biggest meal of the year.
The director of Prisoners, Denis Villeneuve, furnishes this movie with just the right balance of ominous atmosphere and gingerly pacing — it lasts a highly watchable two and a half hours. He gets considerable help from Roger Deakins, whose cinematography gives smoothness and art to the prevailing sense of doom. He can really do wonders with the motif of framing images through windows. A character is photographed seated beside a broken sink so that the sink comes to resemble his head and state of mind. Villeneuve is much better when the images speak than when the characters do. He shares David Fincher's affinity for fraying soundscapes and chic-looking apocalypse. He also shares the indifference to being human that made Fincher such a frustrating filmmaker for the first half of his career.
The people in Prisoners aren't props, but they aren't entirely people, either. Some of the matter is Aaron Guzikowski's screenplay. If you happen to be unlucky enough to figure this movie out after 30 minutes, you're stuck rolling your eyes at bad behavior and red herrings. The film is a horror procedural that thinks it's an emotional drama. A lot of the action involves Gyllenhaal's Detective Loki poking around town and sitting around thinking. You, in turn, are free to take in his slicked-back hair, assorted tattoos, and dress shirts buttoned up to the neck and wonder how this hipster wound up a detective in Nowhereville, PA. Gyllenhaal appears to know who this guy is, and that is almost enough. ("Loki," though, shouldn't be a name that inspires confidence, but we're assured that he has never not solved a case.)
There's just not enough, dramatically, on the other side of this movie. Howard and Davis and Bello don't have anything rewarding to do. These are actors too good for their underwritten roles, especially Howard and Davis, who when asked to complicate the movie's moral muck do so with moving complexity. The problem is that you don't believe any of it. We don't know who any of these people are before the girls go missing, and the suspense of their absences clarifies little. Keller hunts animals (the film opens with him and his boy shooting the Thanksgiving deer). Davis's character, a veterinarian, saves them. There's one moment in which those competing roles threaten to create tension, but it's dropped.
Prisoners is a nutso thriller that inadvertently extends the cable-news narrative that more highly values suffering caused by missing white children than suffering over missing black ones. That imbalance becomes all the more untenable once Keller invites Franklin to accompany him to his homemade jail. Howard is the wrong actor for this kind of reluctant complicity. He can perform it, but you're always thinking he'd have to know that Jackman must be stopped. That, or he'd have to go further in than he does. But could we handle a movie in which a black man tortures a white kid until he gets his daughter back? At a relatively cheap $30 million, Prisoners can afford to be a little crazy (the finale pulls a hamstring straining for "nuts"), but not that crazy.
You can tell this is a marketplace movie. The more audacious film would have put Davis and Howard in Jackman's and Bello's roles. They're the stronger actors. I might have rolled my eyes at that idea before seeing Prisoners because, going in, it'd be hard to believe that a movie could go out of its way to underuse them. Each couple loses a daughter, but the story turns into a vehicle for Jackman's rage. This could very easily have been the story of the hole a missing child leaves in two homes. It just applies spackle.
Adore is nuts, too. It's just as subtlety-averse as Prisoners. But the movie resigns itself to the ludicrousness of its situation, and that's actually more chilling. Adore doesn't have a genre to hide in — or many clothes, for that matter. It's just two longtime best friends — Lil (Naomi Watts) and Roz (Robin Wright) — in a New South Wales beach town. They find themselves in love with each other's sons, and the sons (Xavier Samuel plays Lil's; James Frecheville plays Roz's) find themselves hopelessly obsessed too. The movie feels shorter than it is. You have the inherent juiciness to thank for that. Christopher Hampton took this plot from Doris Lessing's novella The Grandmothers, and director Anne Fontaine turns the sexiness up all the way to "schwing." This is trash that doesn't care to be more. Lil is the unstable one. Roz is altruistically devoted. The friends affect some mock panic about their sexuality ("We're not lezzos. Are we?"). The possibility exists that the exchange of sons is really the closest these two can get to sex with each other. And yet whatever psychology there is comes exclusively from Watts's heat and Wright's cool. Fontaine tries for insinuating Ingmar Bergman framing and lands at ABBA.
Would Fontaine have made this film if the mothers looked like and were as old as Barbra Streisand and Kathy Bates and the sons weren't built like surfers? Of course she wouldn't have. She knows that the all-around hotness of the participants settles your stomach. It just leaves her with an enjoyably shallow movie.
The boys wind up marrying other women, and the movie's lack of transition or developed characters lets the truth come as a shock to everyone but the predators — I mean, perpetrators. The movie, which is in theaters and available on demand, hooks you because the fear it awakens is dumb and plausible at the same time. Now a wife's oedipal nightmare can include her mother-in-law's BFF! That was the gist of Lessing's story. Here it's an afterthought. The movie doesn't care about the wives. What you're left with is a horror film with the helium heartlessness of a nighttime soap opera: The Carnality of Evil.
Supernatural horror movies usually don't make any sense. Half the time I'm not sure their makers even know what they're up to. But the director James Wan and the screenwriter Leigh Whannell have made enough horror thrillers, separately and together (the first Saw and Dead Silence were theirs; Wan made this summer's sleeper hit The Conjuring), to have figured out how to keep improving them. Insidious: Chapter 2 works according to its own logic, and it's fun watching the movie's hokey premise come together in the final act. You stick with it in part because Wan is confident enough with his staging to actually use the camera frame to tell a story. Most of his peers shoot a bunch of scenes and let the editor make a smoothie. Wan no longer relies on visual gibberish. He has become a classicist in that sense.
This is a possession movie starring the characters from the original hit from two years ago. This time focus is on Josh (Patrick Wilson) and the killer ghost that wants to take him over and use him to slay his wife (Rose Byrne), mother (Barbara Hershey), and sons (Ty Simpkins and Andrew Astor). Josh and his elder boy, Dalton, both have some kind of extrasensory perception, which the father has suppressed and the boy is struggling to ignore. But this movie argues that the problem with ESP isn't seeing the dead, it's the dead seeing you. They're so needy.
Chapter Two is a good time, and a cheesy one, too. Red blares from all the décor like a siren. It's in the ironwork, the sofas, the lampshades, and the walls. You can't believe that a home this rife with unhappy souls would also have a pane of scarlet stained glass in a staircase window, but that's the kind of movie this is. There's also the acting of Steve Coulter and the wonderful Lin Shaye as a couple of veteran paranormal experts. These two give this movie its earnest late-'70s, 1980s soul. I appreciate the ongoing teamwork required of Hershey, who has scenes with Byrne and Wilson but also with Angus Sampson and Whannell as ghost-hunting geeks. Oh, and there's indoor floor fog, too!
What's confusing about most possession thrillers is confusing here as well: Why? How? Who? Who else? Who's that? But the movie uses humor, production design, and horror allusions to keep the nonsense within the realm of its own logic. It doesn't quite scare you, but it's got some not-entirely-cheap moments that goose you. At some point, Byrne puts her hands over her mouth and pretty much over her ears. I didn't see her put them over her eyes. But the night I saw this, some easy-to-scare girls to my left did that for her.
By a wide margin, Chapter 2 was no. 1 at the box office last weekend, which isn't saying much. Horror films are the cat videos of the U.S. film industry: They can't be denied. But this is one of the few whose popularity makes sense. The most terrifying movie now playing has no chance at that kind of success, not only because it doesn't have the clever marketing of the Insidious movies, but because its transparency feels too real. Blue Caprice reenacts the killing spree of the so-called D.C. sniper and imagines the year or so before two men sat in a cobalt-blue Chevy and killed 10 strangers.
Alexandre Moors's film proceeds with a steadily ominous air. It uses music to foster an atmosphere of dread that starts on Caribbean sands and ends with a prison interview. Moors opens with panicked calls to 911 and footage of the crime scenes. The film sums up the entire arc in minutes, then jumps backward to Antigua, where Lee Boyd Malvo (Tequan Richmond) meets John Allen Muhammad (Isaiah Washington). More than an hour passes before they begin picking off strangers in parking lots and at gas stations. During that time, you're watching an apparently mentally ill man seduce a sullen, virtually parentless child into a life of crime by dangling the promise of paternity. Washington works with a commanding magnetism. Richmond performs with a difficult blend of innocence, menace, and steel. Presenting a pair of demons in a manner that doesn't demonize black men is a delicate achievement. It puts us inside their heads but doesn't dare ask us to walk in their shoes.
The shootings on Monday at a Washington Navy installation probably make this the wrong time for a director to ask you to remember similar wickedness. But there's a respectful ominousness in the film's beauty. I wrote about that after seeing Blue Caprice in January and haven't forgotten it. It's the scariest thing I've seen in a theater in a long time and one of the best films of the year. This is Moors's first feature, and he knows what he's doing. The observational coolness has a gathering force. The movie speculates that Muhammad was angry about an ex-wife keeping him from his children. But it doesn't build a bridge from his domestic woes to his act of terror, because it can't.
Moors, instead, just allows the images to speak on their own. None speaks more chillingly than those of that title Chevy. Whether it's dancing on gravel like a bull about to charge or its taillights are glowing satanically on the interstate, you feel its evil. Moors seems to be working from a sense of moral duty more than conventional artistry. He amplifies your sense of fear. You spend the movie afraid of the viciousness both on the screen and beyond it.