In the hands of masterful filmmakers, an often-told story can make for haunting drama. In “Prisoners,” two families are pushed to the brink when their daughters vanish following Thanksgiving dinner. One girl’s distraught father, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), and the investigating Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), launch rival hunts for the culprit and the victims.
It’s a potboiler premise, but in this uncompromisingly dark telling it veers from the procedural to something deeper and more tragic.
The pacing, the framing, the performances and sense of milieu mark this as intelligent, ambitious work. Director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski have set out to make something more than just another missing-persons thriller — even though as a thriller, it’s terrific, with urgent tension and suffocating suspense. Roger Deakins’ chilly cinematography imbues the setting, a mundane working-class Pennsylvania community, with a charge of free-floating dread.
The film considers the anguish of ordinary people in extraordinary situations. It keeps us with its characters as their lives are deformed by the apparent kidnapping. Even after it’s been established that the girls are gone, almost no one can believe it. Dover, a builder and hunter, looks for a way to speed the case through direct action. His wife (Maria Bello) withdraws into a haze of self-medication. Their friends (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), equally shellshocked by their child’s disappearance, go numb with pain. The men join search teams combing the woods for clues, but there are none. The characters find themselves facing the grim chaotic reality of a world where all comforting assumptions and assurances have collapsed.
The prime suspect is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a moon-faced loner with a child’s mental capacity. The police question him — his stillness is pregnant and scary — and release him for lack of evidence. There is no trail of taunting clues, just dead-end leads and eerie silence. The film runs a grueling 153 minutes, giving us the sense that we’re trapped in the story, too, 10 steps behind in a tragedy we’re unable to change. It unfolds at a pace that reveals the disappearances as a community tragedy in which the traumatic past sends venomous tentacles into the present.
Dover loses faith in the authorities, and begins his own urgent search, which could interfere with theirs. He’s a loving father and husband, but he’s unstable — damage that the film takes its own good time to reveal. Every actor down to the supporting players is note-perfect, but the film is a special triumph for Jackman, who hits notes of animal agony while also suggesting the subtle ways that Dover’s own childhood left him scarred. He has carved out an adult life by tamping down the hurt, and the stress of crisis is about to undermine his carefully constructed facade.
Villeneuve guides his cast to put the characters’ torment in your bloodstream. Dover, who thinks that Jones is obviously guilty, brutally interrogates him. The film asks difficult questions about justice, personal responsibility and the human condition in harrowing scenes of physical abuse. You don’t have to probe too hard to uncover layers of harrowing social allegory and religious imagery, as well.
Although the story delivers a solution, it’s not about the solution. It is about the way violence penetrates and corrodes the soul, the characters’ journey, and powerful scenes that test the actors’ limits. Villeneuve understands that the deeper the passions, the more understated film technique must be. He knows when to cut loose — a hair-raising car race is as thrilling as any I’ve seen in the past decade — but more important he knows when to employ chilling restraint.