Denis Villeneuve successfully transitions from independent Quebec filmmaker to Hollywood director with Prisoners, an intelligent and well-crafted psychological thriller about the abduction of two young girls and the lengths to which one father will go to save them.
Written by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband), Prisoners is a challenging film readymade for post-screening debate that brims with striking performances.
It’s also a grueling two hours and 26 minutes you’re likely to never want to experience again.
The talented cast is led by Hugh Jackman as Keller Dover, a strict and religious husband and father who lives in a constant state of preparation for the worst-case scenario. But when his little girl turns up missing on Thanksgiving, along with the young daughter of friends, Keller finds himself powerless and exposed by his inability to protect his family.
The main suspect in the girls’ abduction is an awkward and dim-witted 20-something named Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who rarely speaks and is detached from almost everything around him. Alex drives a small camper that was parked in the neighborhood shortly before the girls disappeared and that mysteriously vanished.
Local detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is certain of Alex’s guilt when he is arrested trying to escape the police. But with no evidence linking Alex to the crime, Loki is forced to expand his list of suspects.
Keller, though, won’t give up so easily.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Written by Aaron Guzikowski.
A Warner Brothers release, playing at Cinemark Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons.
Rated R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout.
Running time: 150 minutes.
Critic’s Rating ★★★★
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo, Terrence Howard
★★★★★ Outstanding; ★★★★ Very
Good; ★★★ Good; ★★ Fair; ★ Poor
Unwavering in his belief that Alex can lead him to the girls, Keller confronts him and his elderly aunt (an unrecognizable Melissa Leo) outside of jail, and then kidnaps Alex and tortures him for information. The angry and obsessed dad involves the other missing girl's father, Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), in his violent and criminal behavior.
The film's chilling moral subtext — how far would you go to save the life of your child? — surfaces in every bloody beating and savage torture of Alex by Keller and Franklin. But equally important through the repeated beatings is the plot-driven question: What if they have the wrong man?
Keller represents an important addition to Jackman's career as he continues to push beyond the mutant superhero Wolverine. The actor delivers a powerful performance that never plays to audience sympathy as a desperate man driven to despicable acts that his devout faith and humanity cannot fully reconcile. Villeneuve wastes no time in the debasement of Keller, foreshadowing the father's loss of innocence in the film's opening sequence as he recites the Lord's Prayer while his teenage son pulls the trigger on a deer.
Loki has his own demons. We are introduced to him as he eats Thanksgiving dinner alone at a diner shortly before he receives the call about the missing girls. We also learn that he's good at this job — he's never failed to solve a case — and that he doesn't get along with his captain, a story line that adds little to the film or characters. Otherwise, Villeneuve allows for Gyllenhaal to color in Loki through his smart detective work and emotional restraint that devolves into violent outbursts as the mounting pressures of the investigation take their toll.
Other standouts include Howard in his best performance in years as the father who initially questions Keller's violent plan, and Viola Davis as Franklin's wife, Nancy, a character of equal moral complexity.
Dano, so good as a love-starved author turned creepy possessive in last year's dark comedy Ruby Sparks, is equally as impressive in Prisoners. Arguably the film's most challenging and demanding role, Alex is a character we are made to loath and pity. Is he the monster responsible for the disappearance of the girls? Or is he an innocent soul made tragic by a father's blind and misguided rage? The film keeps us guessing and so does Dano, at one point painfully whispering for help through swollen bloodied lips, and later raging against his tormentors when the opportunity presents itself.
With such a narrow range of suspects, Guzikowski makes sure to introduce creepy new characters on a regular basis to keep us guessing the whodunit of Prisoners. The crime thriller is full of dramatic plot twists — some of which lead to new revelations and others that prove to be red herrings — that will leave audiences emotionally spent by the end credits and debating and discussing its resolution, which will prove too tidy for some, and too open-ended for others.
Prisoners is a dense, cold film rife with religious symbolism and moral ambiguity, such as the pedophile priest who turned the tables on a confessed child killer. Whether this man of faith is a hero or a villain, Villeneuve never says.
And like most everything in his new film, it's a question not easily answered.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.