Prisoners is cut from the same cloth as Mystic River, Gone, Baby Gone, AMC’s The Killing, and to a lesser extent, David Fincher’s masterpiece Zodiac. Like those works, this taut and atmospheric thriller combines elements of police procedurals and character studies to explore the nature of obsession, frustration, loss, as well as the futility of revenge. Working off a terrific multi-layered screenplay from Aaron Guzikowski, this slow-burn American feature debut from French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) uses superb performances, religious iconography, and gorgeous cinematography, to tell a genuinely unpredictable and engrossing mystery.
The story opens on Thanksgiving Day. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), wife Grace (Maria Bello) and their children, teenager Ralph (Dylan Minnette), and six-year-old Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), are spending the afternoon with their neighbors, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrance Howard and Viola Davis). Lunch is served, laughs are shared… it’s a typical Thanksgiving afternoon. That is, until Anna and the Birches’ 7-year-old daughter, Joy, both go missing. While Keller, Franklin and Ralph frantically search the rain-drenched neighborhood, including their own homes, for the two girls, they’re nowhere to be found. The only lead is a decrepit-looking RV that Ralph had seen driving around the neighborhood earlier that afternoon.
When the case is handed over to the authorities, the cop assigned to the case, the incredibly resourceful Dectective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) immediately apprehends the driver of the RV, a near-mute, shell-shocked young man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano). But after determining that Alex has an IQ of a 10-year-old, he is dropped as a suspect and released from custody. Although Loki, who has solved every case he has been assigned to, has some lingering doubts of Alex’s innocence, he decides to move on to other suspects.
The grieving Keller on the other hand isn’t as ready. Convinced of Alex’s guilt and falling prey to his worst emotional impulses, Keller takes the law into his own hands by abducting Alex and torturing him until he can get an answer – even willing to sacrifice his own morality in the process. But is Alex guilty or is he just a dead-end in a puzzle?
Although the central premise of Prisoners is far from new, it’s the superb acting and the novelistic approach to the mystery taken by Villeneuve and Guzikowski that makes it such a gripping experience. The filmmakers keep us invested by slowly revealing clues but just as we think we have it figured out, they throw us off with shocking character revelations along the way. Assisting the script is master cinematographer Roger Deakins gorgeously bleak photography, awash with religious iconography, and tones of atmospheric dread.
However, it’s the superb cast led by Jackman and Gyllenhaal that are the real selling point of Prisoners. Jackman, who has become a superstar for his tough guy roles, reveals a side that we rarely see: tenderness. While he is naturally effective in the scenes which ask him to scream in rage, it’s the quieter, more emotional scenes, in which his vulnerability is exposed, that he truly impresses. This is career-topping work from the actor – the likes of which I hope to see more of. Gyllenhaal is equally good, if not better, in a performance characterized by quiet intensity. His disheveled Loki is the audience’s surrogate, a loner whose body is covered with tattoos. Loki’s twitchy, melancholic eyes hint at a tragic past but rather than bring attention to this character trait, Guzikowski and Gyllenhaal wisely choose to concentrate on the mystery at hand, while subtly creating a rounded character.
Perhaps the film’s only unforgivable flaw is its final 20 minutes in which the film loses its grasp on the audience by descending into hokum with generic scares, set-ups and payoffs. This conclusion, which comes off as a half-baked attempt to neatly close all loose ends, is the only thing that prevents Prisoners from transcending its genre roots. Despite this misstep, the film is intelligent adult-oriented cinema that deserves to be seen.