TORONTO, Sept 7 (Reuters) - Forget for a minute the Hugh Jackman of Broadway musicals and "Les Miserables" and "X-Men" movies, and envision the Australian actor as a Pennsylvania survivalist and desperate father who takes justice into his own hands.
As a carpenter without enough work who stockpiles supplies and doesn't trust government, he is the seething vigilante who drives the dark thriller "Prisoners," one of the most talked-about films at the Toronto International Film Festival and the subject of early Oscar buzz.
Playing opposite Jake Gyllenhaal's small town detective, Jackman's Keller Dover embodies what French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve calls a "lack of confidence in the institutions."
While "Prisoners" is the story of every parent's worst nightmare - the disappearance of two small girls - it is also a depiction of a country in decline, with human connections unraveling and communities near collapse.
"It is a part of America that deeply touched me, the vulnerability of America," said Villeneuve. "We see a lot of movies about the strength and the power and beauty of America. As everything does, it has its own dark side too."
"Prisoners" is Villeneuve's first Hollywood studio film, from Warner Bros., and his first in English after his "Incendies" was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film.
After premiering last week at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, "Prisoners" garnered excellent reviews. Variety film critic Scott Foundas said it "immediately enters the ring as an awards-season heavyweight" and that Jackman and Gyllenhaal turned in career-best performances.
While the story of missing children could have been set in any place or time, Villeneuve said present day Pennsylvania and its soulless "exurbs" was the perfect setting, areas without strong community centers and linked together by highways.
"There is a violence in that kind of environment," Villeneuve said. "I felt it was more violent to lose children there than in a little, nice village. I thought it was a little more contemporary to depict America this way."
Keller Dover fits perfectly into that violent environment.
It is a rainy Thanksgiving Day when Dover's 6-year-old daughter and her 7-year-old friend vanish while the two families celebrate. The only clue is an old RV that was parked near where the girls had been playing.
Gyllenhaal's Detective Loki arrests the RV's driver, an introvert named Alex (played by eerie Paul Dano) who lives with his aunt Holly (Oscar winner Melissa Leo). But he is forced to release Alex after finding no evidence linking him to the girls' disappearance and a rage-filled Dover decides to act on his own, kidnapping Alex in an attempt to make him confess.
"My character represents the idea of the institution and Hugh's character the individual, expressing oneself, regardless of any of the rules," said Gyllenhaal, whose Loki is confident but unable to control the case, or Dover.
"They need to co-exist and if they don't, chaos does ensue. It does in this movie in a lot of ways," added the 32-year-old American actor, perhaps best known for his Oscar-nominated role as a gay cowboy in "Brokeback Mountain."
Jackman's Dover, whose basement is stocked to the ceiling with a survivalist's supplies for the day of doom, takes the audience to a dark place with his vigilante justice over two and a half suspense-filled hours.
"We are prisoners to elemental fears that are unresolved and in primal, cataclysmic situations like a child going missing, it all comes out and everything is unleashed," Jackman said.
Jackman, nominated this year for a best actor Oscar for "Les Miserables," can't say if his Dover is a career-best performance but the 44-year-old does consider it some of his better work. And he credits Villeneuve for not only giving him the chance to do the kind of role he doesn't often get, but also pushing him as an actor.
Jackman points to one particularly tense scene where Dover threatens to take a hammer to Alex's skull. The director made him re-take the scene even though Jackman thought he had nailed it.
"I was exhausted, been going for a long time, and I was positive Denis was going to come up to me and say 'We got it, thanks, that was great,'" Jackman said.
"And he came up to me and put his arm around me and said 'I really need you to go there. Really go there.'"