Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners
sounds cookie-cutter conventional, and in fact there is nothing fresh in the
concept: two little girls are abducted, and the father of one of them goes
after a suspect the police have released. The clock is ticking … and other
cliches we’ve heard way too many times before. But the film is so sharply
directed, tautly edited, so rich and
believably acted — Hugh Jackman is the
fierce and desperate father, Jake Gyllenhaal the obsessed but coolly rational
detective — that you quickly forgive its tired story. Nothing else is tired in
Prisoners, one of the most intense,
satisfying thrillers to appear in years.
The setting is a cold, wet Pennsylvania town in November, a
place isolated enough to be surrounded by woods yet populous enough to have
bland suburban streets, where two neighboring families are having dinner
together when their 6-year-old daughters disappear. Keller Dover (Jackman), a struggling
carpenter, responds with the impatience you would except from any father — until
the spookily quiet suspect (Paul Dano) is set free. If you’ve seen any version of the trailer, you’ll know that Keller then turns bloody vigilante, while his friend
Franklin (Terrence Howard), the father of the other missing child, has qualms
about Keller taking the case into his own hands.
The great Roger Deakins did the cinematography, and you can
almost feel the kind of damp chill that sunlight rarely fights through. There are
no wasted scenes, hardly any clunky exposition as we gradually learn more about
the characters. Keller keeps stockpiles of supplies in the basement in case of
emergencies, almost beyond reason. But even while Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay
asks us to question Keller’s grip on reason, Jackman makes him a passionately
determined, rational hero.
Gyllenhaal takes the familiar role of the smart detective butting
heads with his stupid superiors, and gives it new power. We never get an
explanation for the tattoos on his hands, and don’t need them. All we need to
know is in his haunted eyes, his own driven urgency, and a single line about
his childhood. (Maybe he didn’t have to
be named Loki, which today makes us think of Tom Hiddleston’s character in The Avengers movies.)
The smaller roles are also beautifully acted, with Viola
Davis as one of the mothers, and Melissa Leo as the suspect’s aunt.
Villeneuve’s last film, the exceptional Incendies, was set largely in the Middle East; it’s an ambitious
work, charged with politics and religion. Prisoners
is an extraordinarily well-made popcorn movie. It doesn’t carry the weight of
its marketing tagline: “How far would you go to protect your family?”
Like most thrillers, this one doesn’t provoke us to take things so personally;
that’s why thrillers make for great escapism.
The film reaches for seriousness in a half-hearted way, and if
the portentous opening scene is any indication, it’s just as well the attempt
was minor. The movie begins with Jackman reciting The Lord’s Prayer in
voiceover while Keller teaches his teenaged son to shoot a deer, which makes you
fear that a heavy-handed pretentious movie is ahead. But the scene instantly gives
way to a sleek, deft style. And later, the misguided religiosity that affects
events comes from an unexpected direction.
So forget how provocative the marketers want the film to be. It’s enough that Prisoners is a smart, brilliantly successful thriller.