In “Prisoners,” a kidnapping thriller with bruising emotional resonance, Hugh Jackman plays a working-class father who first loses his daughter and then loses himself.
The film not only probes the riddle of the girl’s disappearance, but also the mystery of our self-destructive tendencies and how they control us. The story is rife with conflict, but the greatest battle is Jackman’s struggle between remaining human and becoming a monster.
His edge-of-madness performance as the tormented hunter-turned-vigilante is the deepest, darkest work of his career. During his visit to the Toronto International Film Festival, Jackman told me that Quebec director Denis Villeneuve pressed him to extremes he’d never reached before.
“This had a kind of depth and rawness that’s rarely asked of me. But when you’re in the hands of a director who can push you to places you didn’t think you could go to, it’s the ultimate challenge for an actor. You just jump on board then and whatever the collateral damage is, is worth it.”
Investing in a role so thick with rage and despair can take a toll, he admitted. While shooting a film, “I always carry a bit of worry about what’s coming next, but I’ve worked hard to let go of what I’ve done. For some it’s harder to let go of any criticism or judgment about it, including letting go of the character. There are different ways of doing it. Some drink,” he said with a laugh. “I meditate.”
Jackman saw something meatier than a standard action-man role in screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski’s script. “I always saw in it the ambition to go beyond the standard thriller. To be actually a really substantial drama wrapped in the clothing of a genre film. It made me think of movies like ‘Mystic River,’ or ‘Seven,’ or ‘Silence of the Lambs.’ This has things on many levels to say about violence and justice and vigilantes. But it wasn’t until Denis came on board that I thought, OK, he can pull off both of those things.”
It was important for Jackman, after reading about victims and watching videos of their families, that the film’s violence not be easy or glorified. “We showed not only the horror of it but also the dilemmas, the moral ambiguity of it.”
The film is a propulsive whodunit that also resonates with potent political and religious themes, as violence begets violence. When Jackman’s character takes the law into his own hands, trying to torture a confession out of a suspect, “you can’t watch that without thinking about Guantanamo Bay and what’s going on in Syria,” he said.
In one intense interrogation scene, Jackman goes berserk with a claw hammer, embedding it in a plaster wall inches from a fellow actor’s head. The moment crystallizes the story’s religious motifs with an indelible image of crucifixion. Yet that was a spontaneous improvisation at the end of a hellishly demanding day, Jackman said.
“We did a long, long, long, long day. In one of those takes [co-star] Terrence Howard actually vomited. With the hammer scene, I was really spent. We’d gone to a really dark place. Denis started to walk over to me and I was pretty sure he was going to say, ‘We’ve got it, man.’ And he said, ‘No, Hugh. I need you to go there!’ I thought I was there, but I said OK. I was glad to have those scenes over. The set director was glad it was the last take. ... I didn’t know I was going to do it. [Co-star] Paul Dano didn’t know I was going to do it. It still amazes me he never flinched.”