Prisoners is a thriller that’s heavy on the suspense and actually provides its fair share of thrills. Directed by Dennis Villeneuve (Incendies), with a screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband), Prisoners asks some hard questions, and in the process, it quietly subverts the thriller, the action movie, and even the horror film, while rarely losing sight of its core message.
Prisoners is the story of two families, the Dovers (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and the Birches (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) who find their six-year-old daughters missing on Thanksgiving Day. Detective Loki, played with an easygoing authority by Jake Gyllenhall, is the man assigned to their case. The search quickly leads to Alex Jones (Paul Dano, in an appropriately creepy performance), a disturbed young man with an unsettling demeanor. When there isn’t enough evidence to keep Jones in jail while the search for the missing daughters continues, Keller takes matters into his own hands, abducting and imprisoning him in an abandoned building. Keller deploys what some might call “enhanced interrogation techniques” in an attempt to get Jones to confess the location of the young girls.
There is a certain gentle irony in the casting of Hugh Jackman as Keller Dover. Jackman has made quite a career for himself playing guys who punch people in the face to solve problems. But here, violence has consequences. Horrific, terrifying consequences. There’s very little “movie violence” in Prisoners, and the torture scenes (and, make no mistake, this is torture) are brutal without being gratuitous. It’s often hard to look at the screen during them, not because of gore, but because of how uncomfortable it is to watch human beings behave like this.
In fact, it’s tough not to see Jackman (Wolverine), Howard (the man who could have been War Machine in the Iron Man films), and Gyllenhall (who was very nearly Spider-Man) as inversions of superhero or action movie archetypes. What are the actual consequences when an ordinary person decides to take the law into his own hands? How awful is it when you hit someone in the face repeatedly? What happens when you are a cop who “has never lost a case,” but are still quite human? Especially one who is prone to mistakes and capable of getting outrun by a suspect, not in a high speed chase or with a dazzling display of parkour or martial arts, but simply through a series of suburban backyards?
Terrence Howard’s Franklin Birch works as the film’s conscience, although it’s worth noting that despite his misgivings, he can’t bring himself to stop Keller. Howard plays Franklin with a wounded sincerity, and he fades appropriately into the background when necessary. Howard allows his character to be overpowered by Keller’s madness, and ultimately upstaged by Viola Davis as his wife in one particularly difficult scene. You’ll know it when you see it.
Prisoners even manages to take elements of the horror film and stand them on their heads. When we first see the imprisoned Alex Jones revealed after days of brutal beatings at the hands of Keller Dover, his face has swollen to monstrous, bloody proportions, and Paul Dano is unrecognizable beneath a layer of makeup that would do Tom Savini proud. Johann Johannsson’s icy score that’s a little reminiscent of the kind of minimalism you’d associate with early John Carpenter flicks layers the tension throughout the film. The chilly, autumn setting helps to complete the slasher flick vibe. Except here, the horror is much more real.
There’s a political component to Prisoners, as well. The question of “how far would you go to keep your family safe” sounds, not coincidentally, like arguments used by governments to justify military action (and worse) during times of unrest. By using these two families as a microcosm of America, before pushing them to their limits, Prisoners raises the spectre of post-9/11 paranoia, and how easily we can make the wrong choices when faced with horrific circumstances beyond our control. “Someone has to make him talk, or they’re gonna die,” Dover says at one point, with a chilling, misguided rationality that has certainly been used countless times behind closed doors over the last decade or so.
However, by the film’s final act, we’re safely back in Hollywood territory. A talky villain master plan reveal worthy of a Bond film mars the proceedings slightly, as does a later scene where one important plot thread is addressed (or dismissed) in passing via a newspaper headline, while another, even more important one, is simply never mentioned again after the middle of the movie. Were the first half of Prisoners not so daring, these sins might be unforgivable. As it stands, they’re minor disappointments.
Prisoners asks so many difficult questions in the course of its first half that by the film’s end, when it starts to tie things up a little too neatly, it’s difficult not to feel a little resentful. Then again, it seems silly to penalize a movie like this for simply being a movie. There’s no fat on this film, and its nearly two and a half hour runtime feels more like ninety minutes, thanks to a cast that delivers in every scene, a compelling story, and unobtrusive direction. While Prisoners ultimately doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its challenging first half, it is still as tight, unnerving, and uncomfortable a thriller as you’re ever going to see.