Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal
Prisoners begins with a prayer and, in a sense, ends with one as well. It's that sense of quiet and stillness that bookend the story (revisited, sporadically, throughout the film in a series of beautiful, silent shots) that allows what might otherwise be a conventional thriller to burrow deep and leave a lasting mark. Soaked in atmosphere, this dark and gripping drama is a beautifully rendered piece of work, a triumph of technical craft even if, on a narrative level, it verges on the preposterous. As the best part of the movie watching season gets underway, Prisoners makes for an excellent primer.
The film opens on Thanksgiving day, as two families - the Dovers, headed by deeply religious survivalist Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Grace (Mario Bello), and the Birches, headed by gentle follower Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis) - come together for dinner and then start to come apart when the young daughters of the two clans go missing. The older siblings, Ralph Dover (Dylan Minnette) and Eliza Birch (Zoe Borde), recall that earlier in the day the girls had been playing on an RV that was parked down the street and is now gone and the police investigation, headed by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), begins with the search for the vehicle. They find it later that night, it's driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), attempting to flee when he sees the police approaching. He's taken into custody but eventually released after a sweep of the RV reveals no evidence of foul play and it's decided that Alex, who has the mental faculties of a 10 year old, isn't sophisticated enough to have pulled off two kidnappings and destroyed all evidence of it in such a short period of time. That's not good enough for Keller, who is certain that Alex is behind the crime and who decides that, if the police won't do their job, he'll do it for them. He kidnaps Alex at gunpoint and locks him up in the abandoned and decaying apartment complex he inherited from his father and then, with Franklin's reluctant help, he tortures Alex in an attempt to get information about the whereabouts of the girls.
Meanwhile, Loki continues his investigation, following leads which seem disconnected but will all eventually dovetail. His job is made more difficult by the disappearance of Alex, which he's increasingly certain that Keller has something to do with, and by the pressure he feels to live up to his reputation as a detective who has solved every case he's ever worked. As the days pass, the chances of finding the two girls alive becomes slimmer, and everyone is cracking under the pressure. Loki is drifting over the edge dividing the professional from the personal. Grace has taken to her bed and into a prescription drug induced stupor. Franklin is in the midst of a deep moral crisis into which he brings Grace in the hope that she can talk sense into Keller, but instead she surprises them both by deciding that the ends will justify the means and that they will simply pretend that they don't know what they know. Keller, meanwhile, is going to greater and greater extremes with Alex, his bloodlust finally starting to give way to despair.
Written by Aaron Guzikowski, Prisoners has some fairly obvious War on Terror and 9/11 subtext (though, arguably, you could say that about nearly every drama released in the last decade) even if you set aside Keller's enhanced interrogation of Alex. Keller is a man who so prides himself on his preparedness for every eventuality (the Dovers' basement is more like a bunker, stocked to the roof with supplies to survive the apocalypse), who spends the opening scenes impressing upon his son that being ready to deal with a crisis is a necessity to being a man. But, as the events of Thanksgiving prove, not every disaster is something you can prepare for; sometimes terrible things just happen and can only be dealt with in the aftermath because they can't be predicted. For Keller, this realization is the sort of thing that shakes his foundation completely, shattering his idea of what it means to be a man, forever altering his vision of himself. Keller is the rage phase of grief, the revenge fantasy come true, and Jackman's performance here is strong, albeit moreso once Keller stops trying to take control of the narrative and his anger begins to give way to anguish. But really, the film belongs to Gyllenhaal, whose wonderfully understated performance is so good that it's practically invisible as a performance.
For my money Denis Villeneuve is one of the most consistently excellent directors working today (three words: Maelstrom, Polytechnique, Incendies), so it's great to see him cross over so successfully to Hollywood which will, at the very least, ensure that his work reaches a larger audience. On a technical level, the film is a superb work of craftsmanship that easily justifies the film's 153 minute running time. On a narrative level, the film does have some flaws, including but not limited to the somewhat unbelievable resolution to the story's mystery, as well as a lack of meaningful roles for the female characters. Davis and Bello, both very skilled actresses, are wasted in roles that require next to nothing of them. Melissa Leo fares slightly better in the role of Alex's aunt, but even though the film takes a pass at parsing out her character's motivations, there's still not a lot of depth to the role as it is. One of the great things about Villeneuve's previous films is that they feature strong, complex roles for women. Since the difference between those films and this one is that he had no hand in Prisoners' screenplay, I can only hope that on his next project (after the already completed Enemy, which reunites him with Gyllenhaal) he's given the opportunity to flex his muscle as both a director and a writer.