A recurring motif in Prisoners, the first English language film from director Denis Villeneuve, is the inner angels and demons struggle within people. Using religion as a prime theme, the film seeks to show what can drive a person over the edge, warping their morality in the process. People can bear crosses, quote scripture, and all that jazz, but under times of intense crises, it’s still entirely possible for them to become obsessive, violent, and reckless under extreme stress. This is the ultimate struggle represented in Prisoners, and that’s only part of what makes this movie so compelling. Haunting, and even blood curdling at times, Prisoners takes influence from the grisly mood of David Fincher’s filmography, and crafts a classic thriller in the process.
In a small town at Thanksgiving, while two families are having dinner, the youngest daughters of each disappear mysteriously. The father of one girl, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), searches relentlessly for the two, but not without sometimes butting heads with Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), the man overseeing the investigation. A prime suspect of the kidnapping is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a mentally handicapped man who owned an RV that the two girls were seen playing around with, but Loki, with a lack of hard evidence against Jones, has to release him, much to the dismay of Dover. In an act of desperation, Dover kidnaps Jones, holds him hostage in an old house, often receiving reluctant help from his friend Franklin Birch (the father of the other missing girl, played by Terrence Howard), and doing unspeakable things until Jones gives them satisfactory information.
It’s been quite a long time since any movie has made me squirm while watching it. First shout out for this goes to the direction and writing. The combined forces of Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski work to establish a tangible, intense tone that works its way into the great subtext and character development presented in the film. The film moves at a methodical pace, and receives most of its strength from the spectacular build up of events that create a sense of mistrust and dread, particularly aided by the blue tinted camera work and dark lighting that enhances the disturbing mood (Kudos on this deed to the legendary Roger Deakins). Even at what might have been a punishing two and a half hours, the film is never anything less than compelling, particularly during the film’s unsettling torture scenes (Kudos here go out to editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach).
What ultimately end up making this movie work so well are the characters and the actors. These characters all convey a completely believable portrait of grief, and violence, and the performers cast in these roles are all so well directed, so smartly used, and work together to form a whole that never takes attention away from another. This is where much of the complexity of Prisoners lies. Of course, while the ensemble as a whole is nothing short of phenomenal, much of the film’s focus and psychological insight is directed at Hugh Jackman’s Keller Dover, a simple, but inspired approach that perfectly represents the struggles of all the characters. In many ways, I see Jackman’s performance in Prisoners as an anti-Jean Valjean. He’s a deeply religious man, but he becomes more reckless and aggressive as the film goes on. He’s understandable in how he wants to rescue his daughter, but he’s constantly committing hostile actions against a man that he has no solid evidence against. Dover beats Jones, threatens to break his hand with a hammer, and rigs a shower system that sprays him with scalding hot water. It’s surprisingly pretty frightening. We can sympathize with his obsession to save his daughter, but can we justify the heinous acts he commits, or should we condemn them? The film is smart to never directly answer this itself, and instead leave it to audience interpretation. It’s an excellent analysis that provides great commentary, and Jackman is simply stunning in the role.
When you add all of this together, Prisoners becomes nothing short of a spectacular film. It isn’t for the squeamish, but for those who can stomach the disturbing tone, they’ll most likely find a lot to admire. Prisoners is far and away one of the best films I’ve seen all year.
****1/2 / *****