French-Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve, has had a remarkable—and productive—last few years. He stunned with last year's extremely tense border thriller, Sicario, and is getting great press for this year's sci-fi picture, Arrival. He'll continue his sci-fi trend with next year's Blade Runner sequel. But his encroaching popularity began with his English-language debut, the insanely dark Prisoners. It's simultaneously easy and difficult to see why the man is in such high demand.
Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is the paranoid patriarch of a working-class family in an overcast Pennsylvania suburb. He and his wife, Grace (Maria Bello), have a teenaged son and a six-year-old girl, who are the same ages and genders as the children of their neighbors and close friends, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis). The families are having a merry Thanksgiving together when they realize that the girls have gone missing.
Earlier that day, the Dover son, Ralph (Dylan Minnette, Don't Breathe) had spotted a sketchy-looking RV, which turns out to be owned by a local simpleton, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who lives with his shut-in aunt (Melissa Leo). The detective placed on the case, the ludicrously named Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) tracks down the RV with Alex in it, whose attempts to get away result in his car accident. Because of Alex's erratic behavior, Keller becomes convinced that the idiot is responsible for the kidnapping of the girls. So Keller kidnaps the man, hoping that torture will elicit some clues as to the children's whereabouts. His actions, and the disappearance of the girls, have a ripple effect on everyone involved. And Alex may not be everything he seems.
Prisoners is an exercise in severe grief and dysfunction under stress. Very few characters on screen know how to confront the horrible situation that has accosted them, if any, including the detective himself. The film attempts to engage with the impossible circumstances, forcing us to question just how we would behave in the Dover's and Birch's situation. It edges on being over-the-top in its grisly depiction of violence and suffering, with Jackman's hysterical performance being of no help, but the movie manages to skirt crass exploitation by posing some truly incisive questions about our willingness to torpedo another's life in order to save your loved one. It pushes the characters to stand behind their claims to "do anything" for their children. It's like if Taken took place in small-town Mid Atlantic and had more than chewing gum between its ears.
One of the film's chief strengths is the cinematography by Roger Deakins, which does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to painting the grim picture Villeneuve is presenting to us. Deakins' prodigious skill even accomplishes putting forth the film's themes of religious devotion and faith, with a striking image of Alex walled into a prison in which the only bit of light streaming through causes it to resemble a confession booth. Keller is meant to carry this bit of symbolism throughout the course of the film, as he is perhaps the most egregious sinner of all, despite his understandable motivations. Jackman had a similar task when he played Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, which is also an appropriate title for this movie. I'm just not convinced he's up to the task, though. His strident rage works when he is wearing a ripped tank top and stabbing fools with adamantium claws, but he needs more subtlety in a role like this.
The supporting cast is reliably great, despite having little relative screen time to Jackman and Gyllenhaal, who is a pleasantly low-key (get it?) foil to Jackman's bombast. Gyllenhaal has recently decided to do some capital-A Acting in his career, what with the bug-eyed extravaganza of ightcrawler and taking on the mantle of Tom Ford's newest film. He could have played this role a lot bigger than he does, so I am glad to see that he hasn't lost his capacity for nuance.
Prisoners is a compelling story, but its also a harrowing one. If you're a parent, you may question why you'd need to put yourself through the experience of watching such an awful scenario, a sentiment I'd understand. Villeneuve has plenty to say about the film's subject matter, which makes it worth putting yourself through. I can't even deem it Oscar bait, because the film is so staunchly opposed to sentimentality of any kind. It's relentlessly dour, but any other approach would be pointless.