Warning this review contains minor spoilers.
Prisoners is the English-language debut by French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. It stars Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, and Viola Davis as the parents of two girls that mysteriously vanish during a friendly get-together. The film also stars Jake Gyllenhaal, as Detective Loki – the man assigned to look into the disappearances – and Paul Dano, as the unusually simple-minded man-boy, and prime suspect.
From the opening scenes of Prisoners, we are given a clear indication that the ever-present stormy skies that shroud the town also run deeper to the core of the film’s narrative; Hugh Jackman’s character Dover is a man of few words, complete with a thousand-yard stare that connote a man with a few problems. He runs a business that struggles within the current economic climate, but is nonetheless a loving husband and father. Even Terrence Howard’s Birch fails to lift the two families spirits beyond anything than a forced smile as he is forced to bring out and play his old trumpet in an early scene before the eventual disappearances. Quietness permeates the introduction and gives you the real essence of Villeneuve’s trademark melancholic atmospheres.
This silence is struck out soon enough as the two families find something terribly wrong when their two girls fail to return home after being given permission to trek out by themselves. Interestingly enough, even the scenes with Dover running around frantically are still muted and still; the depressing mood is allowed to linger until his son reveals that the mysterious RV parked outside the house has vanished along with the girls.
What plays out next is your usual police drama fair, with Gyllenhaal’s Loki put on the case after finding the RV and driver stationed eerily outside the entrance to a wooded area. The driver, Paul Dano’s Alex Jones, is caught, questioned, bullied, and released after it is made clear that he is mentally challenged, having the attitude and demeanour of a boy no older than ten, and no further evidence can pin him to the crime.
Prisoners is largely different from other films centred around child abduction: the film splits into two plots that follow Loki’s investigation, which steadily becomes more deranged and horrific as he unwittingly uncovers a larger and disquieting conspiracy, and Dover’s attempts to rip the truth from Jones after kidnapping and detaining him in an abandoned building. While most films like this usually favour one plot thread over the other (think of Gone Baby Gone, or The Pledge), usually trying to empower the people searching for the truth, Prisoners instead shines away from trying to uncover all the details, and gives us an examination of humanity’s extremes, and how we try to justify them.
While Loki chases red herring after red herring, Dover delves into the devil’s toolbox, interrogating and torturing the mysterious ten-year old in a twenty-something body. These scenes are not only brutal in the visual sense, but stomach-churning as the acts are stripped bare, and what remains is a desperate religious father, and an ignorant boy. It is Hugh Jackman at his most terrifying for all the opposite reasons. It makes his Wolverine character look like a whimpered Shih Tzu. The two plots play out in a way that makes you unclear as to who will find the truth, if it is ever to be found, playing with the very notion of what paths do we follow if we’re to get what we want in the end. What is morality when the lives of innocent children balance delicately on a knife’s edge? These ponderings are brought to boiling point quite literally as Domer presents his most fiendish device to a sickly terrified Birch. A device worthy of any master interrogator.
Loki’s plot bounces around quicker than Dover’s, but doesn’t necessarily fill you with the same thirst for the truth. It plays out fine enough, but that’s about it. His investigation even opens the box of clichés, dishing out the finding-the-answer-on-the-top-of-the-pile-of-files-you-just-scattered-furiously. But his plot does exactly what it should, allowing reflection and exploring the notion that sometimes, the right way ain’t good enough.
The performances are brilliant, but don’t go over the top during the characters’ most rage-fuelled moments, keeping in tone with the calmness of the atmosphere. The film ends on a disheartening note, as we’re left with a final question that is up to us to answer, depending on your attitude towards the characters – your own extremes.
Overall: a well-crafted film that teeter-tots ever so quietly along the lines of morality and extremity. Great performances from all, with considerable focus on Dano’s infant-minded petrification, and Gyllenhaal’s blinky detective on the edge. Mix this with Roger Corman’s wonderfully muted and moody cinematography and Villeneuve’s dreary direction, and you’ve got yourself a film that’s asking to be talked about.