A moody, suspenseful thriller, "Prisoners" is the sort of film that is more than what it appears to be. Directed by Denis Villeneuve ("Incendies"), the mysteries in the story are layered into a deeply personal character study about the lengths people will go to protect their family. It stars Hugh Jackman as Keller Dover, a blue-collar worker with a loving wife (Maria Bello) and two children, Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and Anna (Erin Gerasimovich).
The film opens with the Dover family going to Thanksgiving dinner at their neighbor’s house. That family is headed by Franklin Birch (Terence Howard), wife Nancy (Viola Davis), and their two kids Eliza (Zoe Soul) and Joy (Kyla-Drew Simmons). It’s a typical middle-class existence in a cold and dreary Pennsylvania suburb where everything is status quo: Faith is important, the recession has clearly caused struggle, and friends and family are held close. But when the family’s two youngest daughters go missing, their lives are upended in ways previously unimagined.
The script - written by Aaron Guzikowski ("Contraband") - does a great job of setting up the characters and allowing them to unravel in realistic ways. The four parents all deal with the missing children differently. Keller gets violently angry, his wife Grace sleeps all day, Franklin is in a daze, and Nancy is shell-shocked. These are all believable reactions.
Then we have Detective Loki, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. His character is said to have solved every case he’s been given. He also has a number of oddly placed tattoos, has an eye twitch, and wears a mason ring. If there were anything negative to be said about the script, it would be that his character is not well defined. We need more back-story than a few lines about his career and his time spent in an orphanage. (To be fair, the film is almost two and a half hours long so such backstory might have been left on the cutting room floor.) Despite that, Gyllenhaal creates a compelling character whose desperation to solve the disappearance is palpable.
But it is Jackman’s unhinged portrayal of Keller Dover that is the film’s powerhouse. From the outset he is a man with many sides. The opening scene of the film has him saying the Lord’s Prayer before he guides his son in shooting a deer. He is obsessed with being prepared for some sort of national emergency, and has created a compound in his cellar that clearly has him ready if a zombie apocalypse should break out. Aside from that, he is as distraught as a father would be, but the lengths he goes to border on the insane. When a prime suspect named Alex Jones (the amazing Paul Dano) is released because of a lack of evidence, Keller takes matters into his own hands and abducts the boy. (This is in the trailer - no spoilers here.) What occurs after that is uncomfortable to say the least, but in a weird way understandable. Dover hasn’t slept in days. He feels as though he’s failed. He just wants his daughter to be safe.
Guzikowski’s script might veer in too much misdirection, but that’s part of the intrigue. At every turn there is someone you think could be a suspect. And while the final reveals start to get predictable, there is so much intensity to it all that it is a relief once the film is over. This is a white-knuckle, heart-pounding dramatic thriller in its purest form. It’s also spectacularly directed and shot.
Oscar nominated cinematographer Roger A. Deakins ("Skyfall") is on hand to create a gritty, grimy rain- and mud-soaked world that is as bleak as the story. But it’s also recognizable. This is a place that exists in every state in America. It is America, and this makes the story that much more relatable. Villeneuve takes his time with his story, and while it is a bit lengthy, it’s never boring. It casts a spell over the audience that makes it almost impossible to breathe for the entire running time. Add to that a haunting score by Johann Johannsson, and you have a thriller worthy of your attention. Like the best heart-wrenching films about similar stories, this one will hold you prisoner -- in a good way.