Prisoners is arguably French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s first “mainstream” Hollywood film – and what a way for the world to get to know him. It’s a nail-biting mystery with an involving moral debate at its centre – how often do we see those two things together?
Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a stern, God-fearing father who believes in praying for the best but planning for the worst. A survivalist, he keeps a well-stocked basement ready for the possibility of societal collapse. But the danger that finally materializes in his life is much more personal: over a Thanksgiving dinner at his friends’ house, both families’ young daughters disappear while playing outside.
After a frantic search, Dover’s son remembers a grungy camper van that the girls had been playing on. Police quickly locate the van, and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) apprehends the driver, a mentally-disabled man named Alex (Paul Dano). Alex can’t (or won’t) answer Loki’s questions, and forensic investigation turns up nothing, so he’s released. But Dover is convinced Alex knows where the girls are, and soon takes matters into his own hands to get the information he needs.
Prisoners is not an easy film to watch, and not only if you’re a parent. There’s a discomforting ethical dilemma underlying Dover’s behaviour, represented by Franklin (Terrence Howard), Dover’s friend and father of the second missing girl. As Dover’s intimidation of Alex turns into outright torture, Franklin continually says “This isn’t right,” yet knowing his daughter’s time may be running out, he chooses to go along with the plan. Villeneuve is careful to make the situation as ambiguous as possible – are Alex’s cryptic remarks about the girls real, or is Dover just hearing him incorrectly? As you watch, you’ll probably find yourself feeling just like Franklin – watching in horror but riveted to what the result might be. And still it goes on.
Meanwhile, as Loki’s investigation proceeds, the movie’s energy dips and rises. Though he means well, he’s a frustrating character, quick to judge and lacking in people skills, especially with his police captain (Wayne Duvall). Aaron Guzikowski’s script feels a bit too forced in the ways these people refuse to listen to each other or communicate important information. It also stretches logic that Loki seems to be the only cop actually working the case, doing everything by himself. On the other hand, the fact that Loki is constantly alone brings an added level of danger to every dark basement or empty building he visits. Villeneuve has mastered the suspenseful moment, and you’ll often find yourself on the edge of your seat, even at times when it might not be particularly warranted.
The top-notch cast includes Maria Bello, Viola Davis, and Melissa Leo as three different mothers, each dealing with these events in their own particular ways, and with varying displays of feminine strength. But this is clearly a film about men, and the measures they resort to in desperate times. Jackman and Gyllenhaal square off nicely, and their relationship crackles from their first meeting.
It’s probably half an hour too long, and slightly formulaic. You may even solve the mystery before the characters do. But Prisoners is a riveting thriller with a satisfying resolution.
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