As far as endurance tests go there is something effectively devastating about Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s thriller Prisoners. A two hour forty minute descent into obsession and moral corrosion set in motion by the abduction of two young girls Prisoners primarily follows the twin efforts of Keller Dover, one of the girls fathers, played by Hugh Jackman and a detective with a one hundred per cent hit rate played by Jake Gyllenhall. As shot through the lens of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, who brings a deeply atmospheric visual sense to go with the meaty performances offered by the two male leads, this a suitably tough but effective labyrinth plot that twists and turns its way with tension and palpable sense of dread right up to the final shot right.
It all starts so pleasantly, two happy families converging at the holidays, Viola Davies and Terrence Howard showing up along with Maria Bello as Keller’s wife. Before long a suspicious motor home passes through the neighbourhood and the couple’s respective two young girls, having evaded the watchful eyes of their parents and older siblings, vanish. Enter Alex (There will be Blood actor Paul Dano) as a young man with the brain capacity of a ten year old that was in the RV when the two girls disappeared. For a brief time Alex is held in custody but when no DNA evidence from his RV surfaces the police are forced to let him go. Distraught by this Keller takes the law violently into his own hands kidnapping and imprisoning Alex for torture until he reveals the whereabouts of the two girls. Meanwhile Detective Loki (Gyllenhall) follows a series of leads, mainly local sex offenders, with increasingly grim results.
A straightforward setup for sure and I’ll confess to thinking little of Prisoners when I first heard of it. On the surface this all sounds like a standard issue revenge drama or mystery thriller (think of that dull Nicolas Cage film Justice where a man was on the hunt for the men who raped his wife). Yet Prisoners takes this family tragedy and uses it as a drive through which we see Keller disintegrate as a man while the superior talent behind the camera elevate the film visually as well as creating a stunning sense of tension, foreboding and uncertainty.
While Prisoners boasts a first rate cast, also including Melissa Leo as Alex’s concerned aunt, most of the films extensive run time features Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhall put through their paces. They do impressive work, the latter bringing an insomniac twitch to his overly dedicated cop and a reminder of his sterling work in David Fincher’s masterpiece Zodiac. Mysterious in as much as a cop can be, covered in tattoos and seemingly a walking advert for some unexplained past trauma, Loki is a compelling and somewhat sad, isolated figure perpetually without rest from his work and struggling under the weight of a tough case. That I came to care and fear for Loki with such little knowledge of who he is testament to the actors nuanced portrayal. Gyllenhall carefully gives us the sense of a good man who we sense knows dark places all too well and wanders in willingly in the hope of saving two children. In an emotionally raw performance Hugh Jackman brings a desperation and fury to Keller that is both incredibly forceful and achingly honest. This has been construed as over-acting elsewhere but I found the performance, like the film, gruelling and sincere in its fears and manic sense of loss, duty and love.
For all of its merit let it be conceded that the film does hinge on plot points that wouldn’t be out of place in a less refined procedural. After the resolute sense of frustration accompanying Loki and Keller’s increasingly strained attempts at finding the girls the revelation heavy final act could have inevitably diluted the film’s power for me but it didn’t. The haunting ambiguity of the climax coupled with the strength of Roger Deakins work, the lead performances and the directors well observed sense of human behaviour when faced with the unthinkable allow Prisoners to ride over any arguably coincidental (or that dreaded word contrived) plot developments. Small things come back to play in an important way later on in the film but never once did I feel cheated. Well-acted and meticulously crafted Prisoners is an emotionally dynamic and sometimes disturbing drama the effects of which are still felt long after that haunting final shot.