Film Review: Prisoners

Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal burn the candle at both ends in this emotionally whipsawing kidnapped-child thriller with an unusually strong moral resonance.

For his first Hollywood film, Denis Villeneuve’s (Incendies) take on Aaron Guzikowski’s famously long-unproduced screenplay about the kidnapping of two little girls is rooted in a rare workaday realism. When revelations start knocking the film this way and that, Villeneuve keeps a firm hand on the pressure valve while still giving his performers room to grow with the story rather than in spite of it. Without him, this might have been just an exceptionally twist-laden thriller. With him, it’s a dour but exceptionally high-stakes drama with several performers giving their best efforts in years.

Jackman is again the big man of the story, but this time he earns it not just by dint of being the guy with the long ginsu-blade claws. Keller Dover is a working-class guy first spotted in the forest saying an Our Father and clapping his son on the shoulder, proud of how he downed his first deer. The Dovers go down the street to the Birches (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, neither given quite enough screen time) for Thanksgiving. Both families have little girls; later in the night, they go missing. Keller’s son remembers seeing a rattletrap RV on their block. The police find the RV and its driver Alex Jones, superbly inhabited by Paul Dano as the bug-eyed guy with greasy hair seemingly straight out of Child Abductor central casting.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Detective Loki, the main target for Keller’s rage when Alex is released for lack of evidence. While Loki works the case with the knowledge that every day that passes decreases the girls’ chances to be found alive, Keller pursues his own strategy. He kidnaps Alex and chains him up in an old building, determined to beat the truth out of him.
Not long after that point, Prisoners turns from taut, grim potboiler to something more wrenching. Keller’s faith initially serves him well as self-appointed inquisitor. But the truism about torture dehumanizing the interrogator as much as the prisoner becomes wrenchingly visible here. Meanwhile, Loki—a man seemingly as bereft of family life and faith as Keller is utterly defined by it—follows the spiraling threads of a frantic and thin investigation. While the two men beat themselves raw against a seemingly immovable mystery, the script flings out hieroglyphic hints of circumstantial leads, and Villeneuve teases increasingly horrendous and surprising possibilities.

The story’s melancholic spirit, almost overwhelmed by Roger Deakins’ rainy cinematography and Johann Johannsson’s gloomy score, is given a fiery kick by its impressive leads. Jackman’s stolid and broad-shouldered dad seems such the immovable force that once he starts to break down, a contagious sense of panic fills the film. Set against him, Gyllenhaal pulses Loki with a twitchy energy that continually upends expectations—an uncommon feat in movies featuring loner cops who try too hard. Between the dark waves being set off by the two of them and Villeneuve’s canny timing, the story pivots from suspense to moral investigation to puzzler without succumbing to the expected voyeuristic or sadistic impulses.

While Prisoners should build strong word of mouth, it will definitely divide audiences. Those wanting a thriller and those wanting an impactful family drama could both be disappointed at the way those two genres crash into each other here. This makes for a sometimes infuriating combination, but one with an undeniable vitality.