Thanks to a period of impressive productivity culminating in a pair of striking—but very different—Jake Gyllenhaal vehicles (Prisoners, Enemy), Denis Villeneuve is starting to look like the heir to David Cronenberg’s throne as Canada’s most distinguished auteur. Early in Prisoners, two couples and their children gather for Thanksgiving—and a daughter from each family goes missing. Police rule out the mentally challenged Alex (Paul Dano) as a suspect, but Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) still believes he is responsible. As a result, Keller perpetrates a kidnapping of his own, holding Alex hostage and vowing to torture him until he finds out what happened to his daughter. As this process escalates and the other victim’s parents (Viola Davis, Terrence Howard) get involved, Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) attempts to unravel the case. Frustrated by Keller’s combative, uncooperative attitude, he eventually stumbles upon promising leads, concerning the kidnapping of the girls and Alex.
While watching Prisoners, most viewers will be engrossed in the external world of the film, but the big surprise here is how much unfolds beneath the surface. This is a well-oiled cinematic machine (the involvement of master cinematographer Roger Deakins doesn’t hurt) full of surprise, suspense, and disciplined filmmaking, but Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) are equally interested in theme and character, resulting in a mainstream thriller with a novelistic complexity. The title itself is an important clue to the film’s real preoccupations. Exploring the feelings of powerlessness that either inspire torture or allow it to go unchallenged, the film features more prisoners than you might first realize. Where it gets really interesting—as both a story and an exploration of its themes—is in the unique ways that Keller becomes precisely the kind of monster he’s determined to destroy.
While Villeneuve introduces most of his characters as average Americans content to live lives indistinguishable from their neighbours, the kidnapping forces them to confront the more extreme aspects of their personalities. Known for playing characters of charm and good intentions, Hugh Jackman starts in his usual register, quickly shifting into a more disturbing, morally complicated mode. Authentic rage from any actor is powerful, but Villeneuve finds particular resonance in Jackman’s sizable deviation from his usual screen persona.
As the film’s more levelheaded protagonist, Jake Gyllenhaal delivers one of his most grown up performances. On paper, this character is a relatively traditional investigator, but Gyllenhaal personalizes the characterization, adding several key details. While his tattoos, facial tics, and increasingly ruffled locks may strike some viewers as an actor’s plea for attention, they also give the character a welcome specificity. None of this is essential to the plot, but it enriches Loki’s conflict with Keller and suggests an entire life outside the film’s central narrative. This is indicative of a general strategy employed by Villeneuve and his cast. Rather than shoot the film’s excellent script exactly as written, they constantly add details to complicate genre conventions.
However, the key to the film’s power is Villeneuve’s understanding of subtlety as a dramatic tool. Rather than explain away the film’s complexities, he lets them quietly sink in. This has already caused some critics to mistakenly conclude that Prisoners is an endorsement of torture, a wildly incorrect conclusion that misunderstands the film’s paradoxical nature. When you leave the theatre and start to process the implications of the eventful final act, the film’s central torture victim quietly emerges as one of the most devastating characters in recent memory, not collateral damage. By complicating the usual cinematic treatment of vengeance and justice, Prisoners finds rare nuance in the thriller form, resulting in an urgent, evocative work worthy of comparison to modern classics like Seven and The Silence of the Lambs.