You can bounce a quarter off any frame in the first two hours of Prisoners, the American debut from acclaimed Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies). From its first moments—a father and son stalking a deer in a snowy Pennsylvania forest—the suspense is relentless; the sense of dread and impending violence that looms in every scene can be almost suffocating at times.
It’s as if two movies unspool simultaneously: a grim, confrontational examination of the depths to which people will sink if they think they are justified in doing so, and a twisty, seedy serial-killer yarn that ultimately conforms to many of the subgenre’s established tropes. The first movie is by far the more interesting of the two, and it’s unfortunately about a half-hour shorter than the second film. But even when Prisoners sheds many of its layers and becomes a by-the-numbers thriller, it’s better than most of its ilk, having more in common with The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en than the legions of knock-offs either of those movies inspired.
That idea of duality is one that permeates the film. Shortly after Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman, in a raw, career-best performance) and his teenage son bag the deer they’ve been hunting, they join the rest of their family for Thanksgiving with the Birches. The two families are mirror images of one another: the Dovers are white, working-class, salt-of-the-earth types; the Birches are black, professional, more sophisticated. Keller Dover and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) are lifelong friends, and their dinner-time camaraderie is easy and obvious. Enjoy it, because it’s the last time either of those words will apply to Prisoners.
The families have one thing in common: each has a vibrant young daughter, and both of those girls disappear after Thanksgiving dinner. Suspicion falls on the driver of a creepy RV parked in the neighborhood. Alex Jones (Paul Dano) is quickly arrested and found to be mentally handicapped, possessing cognitive abilities that aren’t far beyond those of the 6-year-old girls he is accused of abducting.
Two girls are gone and two families are devastated, so it’s fitting that two men should do the bulk of the detective work. Leading the official investigation is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), an enigmatic, tightly wound cop who quickly eliminates Alex as a suspect. Keller is just as sure that Alex is responsible, and begins his own brutal campaign to get the already damaged young man to talk. What follows is a story couched in cruelty and brutality of both the physical and emotional sorts.
Most of the violence is implied rather than shown—only a few images will be problematic for squeamish viewers, though the camera lingers on them—but I found Prisoners harder to watch than any of the so-called torture-porn films that came in the wake of Saw and Hostel. In those films, the tormentors are cartoonishly evil men and women who are honest about their sadism; in Prisoners, heinous acts of torture are committed (mostly offscreen) by a sympathetic character who believes himself to be morally and ethically justified in his actions. We’re repulsed by the things he does and astonished by his capacity for cruelty, but, even worse, we understand why he does them, and that makes Prisoners a very uncomfortable affair.
Even if it’s not an easy film to watch, it’s gorgeous to look at. Shot by celebrity cinematographer Roger Deakins, Prisoners is as striking as anything David Fincher has made. Think of it as a visual companion to Se7en—a sparse, wintry suburban counterpart to Fincher’s dense, rain-soaked urban nightmare.
With its religious undertones and diabolically inventive killer, Prisoners echoes Se7en in other ways as well, but it’s too smart to be called derivative. Even as Villeneuve starts playing by the rules, he finds clever ways to manipulate moviegoers and subvert our expectations. The movie’s last-inning twist is telegraphed very early, but the filmmakers still find ways to surprise. And even when things get bananas in the final stretch, Jackman, Gyllenhaal, and the supporting players, including Melissa Leo as Alex’s taciturn aunt and Viola Davis as the mother of one of the missing girls, turn in such great performances that we can buy into the movie’s more outlandish plot contrivances.
I often find myself using this space to applaud filmmakers who take chances and try bold things, even if they fall a little short. Such is the case with Prisoners, a film that is no less fascinating for its flaws. There’s a disconnect between the challenging, underplayed bulk of the film and its more conventional resolution, but it’s still one of the best crime thrillers to come out of Hollywood in years.