A two-headed thriller, “Prisoners” is one part conventional kidnapping mystery and one part psychological drama. While the mystery of who abducted two little girls haunts the entirety of the 153-minute runtime and will keep audiences glued for every minute, the film also serves as a portrait of a desperate parent willing to cross any line to get his daughter back.
Those who crave the classic dark and gritty “whodunit” and also enjoy some dramatic heft and effective gravitas will find “Prisoners” an enormous gift. Exhibiting consummate filmmaking and storytelling from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, this is a true thriller that doesn’t try and pull too many tricks.
Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), his wife Grace (Maria Bello) and their two kids are celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday at their neighbors’ — the Birches (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) — house. At the end of the evening, the families realizes their two little girls are missing and the lonely Police Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) gets on the case. Police apprehend the practically mute Alex Jones (Paul Dano) but let him go when they can’t get him to talk and don’t have any evidence to bring charges. Unsatisfied, Keller, certain Jones is hiding something, abducts him and tries to get him to talk before it’s too late.
Writer Aaron Guzikowski, who previously adapted “Contraband” from its Icelandic predecessor, delivers a straightforward script with numerous complications. The story will get under your skin while leaving enough nuggets in the mystery to keep you captivated. Unfortunately, all the twists and discoveries might generate some difference in opinion. Nothing is done, spelled out or tied up neatly and clearly — Guzikowski cares more about symbolism and themes than satisfying answers.
Villeneuve appears to be a perfect pairing with this script, as he enjoys the symbolism and setting the tone early and often. “Prisoners” has a downright creepy vibe that will keep viewers constantly paranoid. Every shot is a portrait, with due credit to veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins. The film’s stunning imagery automatically sets it apart from run-of-the-mill thrillers.
Jackman’s performance is the only one of note in “Prisoners” despite the excellent ensemble. The roles filled by Howard, Davis, Dano, Bello and Melissa Leo as Alex’s aunt could’ve been done by anyone. A good case could be made for Gyllenhaal too, but his character is straightforward — a detective whose primary concern is to solve the damn case to shake off his own expectations and those of others.
The aspect of “Prisoners” that should garner the most praise is the way it incorporates strong character elements in with the main mystery narrative. Just as crucial to the story is the way Keller, a God-fearing man whose life philosophy is “pray for the best, prepare for the worst,” begins to unravel mentally and morally after the disappearance of his child. He proves to be far from the protagonist when all is said and done and the resolution of his individual story becomes of equal importance to the resolution of the greater mystery.
“Prisoners” only begins to crumble a bit when it comes to sorting out the truth from the distractions and driving home the central themes. Religious imagery and ideas dominate the beginning of the movie and get peppered in throughout, but there’s a lack of follow through. The notion of the unsolvable maze, which comes into play at one point, also seems relevant to the story, but is never explained. The movie wants you to think about its ideas rather than its outcomes, which is a fair request, but the outcomes better be straightforward enough to discern and in many cases they aren’t.
Dark, cold and troubling, “Prisoners” is a brooding thriller with both substantial dramatic and mystery elements. Villeneuve is a talent to keep an eye on in the future as with Guzikowski, despite the flaws in the wrap-up of the film.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Written by Aaron Guzikowski
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Terence Howard, Viola Davis