A first-rate ensemble procedural with weighty themes to spare, Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve's tense kidnapping drama "Prisoners" revolves around a familiar set of genre ingredients but lays them out with expert precision. Similar to Villeneuve's Oscar-nominated "Incendies," the director's first entirely English language feature involves a high stakes investigation and a generation-sprawling mystery only made fully clear in its closing scenes, but the comparisons stop there. Before all else, Villneuve's grim chronicle of the fallout when two young girls vanish in a small town succeeds at crafting one powerfully suspenseful moment after another.
Closest in terms of precedents to the patiently told crime sagas of David Fincher, with shades of "Se7en" and explicit nods to "Zodiac," "Prisoners" alternates between two modes: an investigative thriller and a intense tale of crime and punishment. From the opening shot, it's obvious that the movie intends to tackle big ideas, as Villeneuve's camera gradually pulls back from a deer in the snow to find it in the crosshairs of a teen hunter while his stern-faced father, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) recites a prayer. The mixture of tension and spiritual convictions that come out of that sequence remain in place over the course of the next two-and-half hours, picking up steam moments later. After father and son bring home the buck, they share the meal with Keller's close friend and neighbor Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) and his brood as holiday cheer sets in. Within minutes, the tenor of the scene shifts, as the two families' young daughters vanish without a trace and panic sets in.
Nearby, wry detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) tracks down a mobile home spotted near the neighborhood and arrests simpleton Alex Jones (Paul Dano), an obvious suspect who offers no clues to the girls' whereabouts. Having reached this juncture, "Prisoners" branches off in two directions: The continuing efforts by Loki to track down the reason behind the girls' disappearance by grasping for shreds of local events stretching back several decades, and the alarmingly risky antics of Keller as he decides to take matters into his own hands.
Frustrated with the police's inability to press charges against Dano's soft-spoken headcase, Keller kidnaps the young man and tortures him in a vacant building for days at a time, vainly performing a series of brutal acts to pry out new information. Revealing the scheme to the similarly bereaved Keller and his wife (Viola Davis), Keller drags the Birch family into his dangerous vigilante world while keeping his own brood in the dark, further complicating their ability to cope with the difficult scenario. As a result of this uneasy dynamic, there are several layers knowledge circulating throughout the thorny plot. "Prisoners" retains a constant level of engagement by making it impossible to determine who will discover the next piece of the puzzle and whether a moral boundary has been crossed.
While Gyllenhaal's character grows suspicious of Keller's behavior, both men seem to be walking circles around the bigger picture behind the original crime. Though their commitments resonate, they hail from familiar archetypes: Loki is the obsessive cop slowly driven to maniacal extremes by his interest in an impenetrable case, while Keller takes on the dimensions of a typically flawed power freak when he starts hitting the bottle to bury his sorrows. Yet there's no doubting the power of Aaron Guzikowski's script in rendering the men's plights with a series of engrossing turns. Unsurprisingly, "Prisoners" refers not only to the pair of presumed young captives but to the way everyone impacted by their absence is trapped by emotion and instinct.
It's certainly difficult to empathize with Keller once he starts subjecting his own detainee to severe measures, threatening him with a hammer and hot water to no avail. "He's not a person anymore," he claims to his horrified friend, inadvertently establishing the possibility that the description could fit Keller just as well.
Villneuve does a fine job establishing these alternating incidents, although the rest of the cast is noticeably less rounded, a sore point particularly in relation to the underwritten female characters: Maria Bello, as Jackman's melancholic wife, does little more than wander around her house and weep, while Davis gets only one scene to show much of a personality. By contrast, Melissa Leo stands out with a substantially intriguing role as the mother to Dano's enigmatic character, with her significance in the story expanding in definition as the plot moves along, though she's also a somewhat distracting cartoonish archetype of white trash that leads "Prisoners" in a pulpy direction that's beneath its grand gestures.
Nevertheless, it's easy to make peace with some of the obvious genre tropes and simply admire the precision with which Villneuve keeps the pace in constant forward motion. As with Fincher's "Zodiac," the nature of the search for answers takes on an almost metaphysical quality divorced from specifics. Of course, the movie also contains a literal connection to Fincher's movie in form of Gyllenhaal, who does some of finest, most controlled work since his similar role there. Jackman's equally in top form, channeling the rage that made him such a fine Wolverine into a concerned parent driven to irrational outbursts.
The specifics of the investigation can't compete with the maturity of the storytelling, and when various pieces start to come together in the final hour, the movie's dramatic contrivances grow somewhat distractingly obvious. However, Villeneuve finds steady footing in finale, when the pileup of circumstances give way to a subtler, ambiguous conclusion. Villeneuve makes the philosophical conundrums lurking beneath the proceedings feel purposeful. "You can't always save the day," a minor character argues to the resolute detective. With a perceptive eye, "Prisoners" showcases the struggle to push back against that sentiment without taking sides.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Warner Bros. releases "Prisoners" on Friday. Well-received at Telluride and Toronto, the movie should gain some awards season momentum for its lead performances and screenplay, although the dark subject matter make it a tough box office proposition.