The first shot of director Denis Villeneuve’s (“Incendies”) new thriller, “Prisoners,” shows a sparse winter forest in Western Pennsylvania. A wide spectrum of grays, this is a harsh, desolate place, but, as a deer creeps into the frame, you see there is life. You also bear witness to an inherent brutality as a young hunter, Ralph Dover (Dylan Minnette), kills the doe at the urging of his father, Keller (Hugh Jackman). Not only does this initiate you into the world of the film—we’re talking about a where every choice is morally ambiguous, gray if you will, though some are so dark as to be damn near black—but it also sets up a tense, quiet atmosphere punctuated by stunning violence. “Prisoners” is a mystery that is as physically and emotionally pulverizing to you the viewer as it is to the characters.
Keller is a survivalist. The one thing of any value his father taught him was to be prepared, prepared for the inevitable collapse of civilization, for the end of the world. With his overstocked basement full of canned goods, MREs, and bullets, he may be ready for an economic catastrophe, outside invasion, nuclear war, or even zombies, but “Prisoners” brings his world crashing down on top of him in one way that he never saw coming, one way that tears apart everything he thinks about himself. Taut and compelling, even at 153 minutes the film keeps you moving along, every twist and turn is meticulously earned.
One cold and dreary Thanksgiving day, the Dovers—Keller, Ralph, wife Grace (Maria Bellow), and daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich)—think they’re going to have a nice, relaxing holiday dinner with their lifelong friends, the Birchs—Franklin (Terrance Howard), Nancy (Viola Davis), Eliza (Zoe Borde), and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons). That is until the two young daughters, Anna and Joy, go missing. Aaron Guzikowski’s script makes you feel the panic of the parents searching every conceivable place the girls may be, and experience every parent’s worst fear come to life. Surely they must be in one of their usual haunts, surely they must have come home while you were out looking, surely they can’t really be missing. The only suspect is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a grown man with the IQ and mental capacity of a ten year old, who lives with his spinster aunt (Melissa Leo). Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is on the case, but meets one dead end after another in his investigation.
“Prisoners” is the kind of story that tears the top off of an apparently idyllic situation in order to expose the hidden, sinister truths lurking below. This goes for the small, working class town, as well as the two families. Both have problems, but who doesn’t? The nameless burg has an air of safety, but when you look closer you notice the rotting frames of the houses, the rust on the cars, and the boarded up storefronts. And these are salt of the Earth people we’re talking about. Financially it’s always a bit of a struggle, but they do what they have to in order to get by, and they seem happy enough. As the film progresses, hidden hints, shadows, and secret whispers from the background begin to take a more prominent role. When the curtain is pulled back, you see what they’re made of.
Keller and Loki form the center of the film, and these two also give the strongest performances. Jackman is as good as you’ve ever seen him. Coming completely unglued, Keller is a man of action, incapable of sitting back and letting the cops do their job. He must act, but the problem is, he has no clear path to follow. So he does the only thing he can, which is kidnap and torture Alex Jones, despite all signs pointing to his innocence. His rage, driven by his impotence, his inability to do anything, is palpable, and there are moments where the violence, though not traditionally graphic, is so real and visceral that “Prisoners” is hard to watch.
Keller breaking down is loud, brutal, and in your face. Loki’s, on the other hand, is a much quieter unraveling. Decked out in a neck tattoo, there’s something strange about him you can’t quite place. He has an overly combative, antagonistic relationship with his chief. He has cryptic knuckle tattoos, and a ring with an ominous symbol that immediately calls to mind the Masons or similar secretive sects. Just as frustrated and motivated as Keller, Loki’s rage is directed inward, and Gyllenhaal practically burns from the inside. These two characters, these two sides, form a nice push and pull dyamic throughout the film.
Dano and Leo provide nice support as the simple, but still creepy man-child, and his harried, more-complex-than-you-give-her-credit-for guardian. Unfortunately, Bello and Howard are largely wasted. They do precisely what “Prisoners” asks them to do, but their characters aren’t given anything substantial to work with. After the tragedy, Grace immediately withdraws into a heavily medicated grief, and never does much else. Franklin is the anti-Keller, his natural state is inaction. Keller pushes him to help with the kidnapping, but past a point he does little else. Franklin doesn’t participate, but he doesn’t stop his friend either. These are realistic responses, and indicative of thin veneer that is their happiness, but you can’t help but hope for more from performers of this caliber.
Roger Deakins’ photography highlights the gloom of the story, but also presents the bleak shades of gray in beautiful visual strokes. Exhausting in the best possible way, “Prisoners” raked you over the coals time and time again until you’re left limp and raw. The film works as an emotional roller coaster, a drama about a family in the midst of horrific heartbreak, and as tight, compelling mystery full of misdirection and clever shifts.