An air of heaviness surrounds Prisoners: the darkness of its story, the grimness of its view of human nature, the somberness of its performances. The titular captives aren’t limited to the abducted girls at the plot’s center—in a sense, most of the characters are trapped in metaphorical prisons of one form or another. That heaviness is pungently expressed by director Denis Villeneuve without much variation or letup—and in the process, the audience gets imprisoned a bit, as well.
Running a little over two-and-a-half hours, Prisoners solemnly observes the repercussions of a kidnapping in a Pennsylvania community. Keller (Hugh Jackman), a religious man well-stocked for any possible emergency—his basement is filled with supplies, including gas masks—gets understandably alarmed when his young daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), goes missing near the end of Thanksgiving, along with her friend, Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons). His suspicions lead him to believe that a mentally slow weirdo named Alex Jones (Paul Dano) abducted them—they were playing around his RV earlier in the day—but Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), the smart, dedicated detective investigating the disappearance, is convinced that Alex doesn’t have the intellectual faculties to pull off this crime. Keller’s white-hot anger blinds him to Loki’s logic, however, and soon he’s pursuing Alex on his own, boarding him up in an abandoned building and torturing him in an effort to force him to reveal where Anna and Joy are.
With its measured pace and stark, unglamorous portrayal of violence, Prisoners wants to be more than just an escapist crime thriller—it has its sights set on loftier aspirations. Like Mystic River or Zodiac, the film is as much a commentary on evil and moral rot as it is a detective story. That’s laudable, but it’s not always effective. Though the movie has an original screenplay (from Contraband writer Aaron Guzikowski), Prisoners feels like it was based on a hefty bestseller that was full of page-turning suspense but was adapted for the screen with an eye toward making it classier and more significant.
Prisoners is the English-language debut of veteran Québécois filmmaker Villeneuve, whose previous film, the Oscar-nominated Incendies, was in its own way a mystery that revealed humanity’s darker aspects while dishing out some faintly preposterous twists. Both high-minded and pulpy, his latest movie wants to give us insights into our baser natures, but it isn’t nearly as perceptive as its makers might think.
This liability is most noticeable in the film’s treatment of Keller’s kidnapping of Alex. Frustrated that the cops haven’t taken his accusations seriously enough, Keller believes he can beat the truth out of the scared, quiet outsider. Joy’s parents (played by Viola Davis and Terrence Howard) are initially aghast at Keller’s actions, but after one of them eventually offers tacit approval by not speaking out, we’re meant to be shocked by the revelation concerning what some people would be willing to do to protect their children.
The problem is that Alex smells like a red herring from the start. Forced to wear unsubtly creepy and unfashionable oversized glasses, Dano plays Alex as a one-note simpleton whose unkempt hair and ineffectual speaking style (when he speaks at all) fits our collective image of a sniveling pedophile. But with such an obvious setup, it becomes progressively more difficult to believe that Alex is the culprit, making Keller’s increasing abuse of the man more and more pointless. If the idea is for us to share in Keller’s helplessness and rage, it doesn’t work because we’re pretty sure Alex isn’t the man behind the abduction—maybe Keller could do more good by actually spending some time trying to find the people who are.
With that said, though, the film’s aura of misery and tension is coldly effective. Working with longtime Coen brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins, Villeneuve has transformed this Pennsylvania town into a land of endless rain and overcast skies—there’s a sense of decay always seeping into the corners of the frame. More so than some of the characters’ actions, the movie’s atmosphere suggests a modern world in which we no longer feel safe, always prepared for the next bit of gloomy news to come our way. In such an environment, Prisoners’ dread is allowed to run free, and Villeneuve is at his best letting his slightly convoluted tale slowly uncoil as Loki tries to get to the bottom of these missing girls’ whereabouts.
Suffused with glumness, the cast members come across as different vivid shades of grey. Jackman is wholly convincing as this angry, haunted man, although better (but less flashy) is Gyllenhaal playing a detective who is emotionally invested in the crime but for other reasons: He’s never failed to solve a case. Throughout, Prisoners is filled with meaty performances, everyone marching to the same desperate, disillusioned beat. It’s a punishing experience and a rewarding one—but you’ll be happy to have escaped it when it’s over.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Aaron Guzikowski
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano
Release Date: Sept. 20, 2013