Written by Aaron Guzikowski
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Overstuffed with an A-list cast, Denis Villeneuve’s US debut Prisoners is a funereal and often shocking meditation on what people are capable of doing for their loved ones. Permeated with savagery and blood, this is a film that forces ghastly situations on the audience which they’ve likely seen before but are hopefully not entirely numb to processing from a victim’s point of view. The drive behind what holds a family together for better or worse is showcased in painful detail. Gruesome, agonizing, and distressing, Prisoners goes for the jugular and leaves everyone wincing at the hideous view of the human condition that it leaves in its wake.
With just a crack of hope peaking through every scene, Prisoners constantly reminds you that none of its characters are safe or free to live without oppressive guilt. All involved cannot release themselves from the dizzying stranglehold that the disappearance of two little girls brings. When the young children of the Dover and Birch families go missing, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) flies from frantic grief to kinetic rage trying to root out who has done it and if his daughter is still alive. Never mind that, beyond Jackman’s quite obvious motivations for resolving his desperation with violence, the rest of the characters’ reasonings for action or inaction are fuzzy and obtuse. Nonsensical explanations about others that are involved with the abduction only serve to divert the audience’s attention away from the unblinkingly stark emotional epicenter of the film. Jackman is undeniably that epicenter. He owns, crushes and mutes all other performances.
Alex Jones (Paul Dano) is a childlike suspect that’s frustratingly timid and rendered minuscule in the towering shadow of Jackman’s fury. Terrence Howard as the other father is almost constantly tearful, humiliated, and made disturbingly morally pliable by the abduction. Dover stooping down to a dangerous level of corruption to elicit results in his rash bid to get his daughter back is at least boldly decisive and memorable by comparison to the other shrinking, almost non-existent characters. This film builds Jackman up to be a figure of monumental heartache whose melancholic madness threatens to deepen his despair and family’s troubles beyond any repair. Dover’s actions amp up the stakes and explore a depth of depravity beyond where most moviegoers want to go. For that reason, however well-trodden the material may seem, Prisoners will be an adventurously morose outing for some that are purely enticed into a viewing by the pedigrees of the well-known cast.
Heading up the police investigation of the abduction is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who uses everything that Jackman doesn’t, namely sound decision-making based on patient logic and a concentrated effort to make the right decision for everyone involved. He willfully uses his brain instead of attacking instinctively from the heart, but the film makes it apparent that he also has the luxury of living outside of the families affected. Like Dover, Loki is torn apart by trying to find the girls alive and becomes increasingly devil-may-care with his methods as time drags on and the odds of a positive outcome begin to dry up. What is and what is not considered moral within the misery of the situation is blurred as the seedier aspects of the film come to light.
The horrendousness within the story may feel all too familiar or stale to those well-acquainted with television crime dramas that often spare nothing in describing the bleak reality of degenerate minds and dismembered bodies. When right on track and at its most suspenseful, the movie is a remarkably well-crafted race against time in which Dover and Loki each take on the catastrophe in spellbindingly different ways. The resolute darkness that Jackman brings to the shades of grey he conducts his investigation with serves as a sad monologue that elevates the film from pulpy exploitation to a rumination on instinctive protectiveness. Gyllenhaal’s introspective detective in turn complements and supplements Jackman’s brutishness for a more complete view of consciences in crisis. Prisoners frustrates as it plods around monotonous violence but captivates as it finally unfurls its monstrous revelations and, in the end, satiates the audience even as it has taken them on an almost merciless odyssey into the minds of men forced to wallow in the worst of what humankind can suffer.
– Lane Scarberry