Although cut from the same cloth as such fine procedurals as David Fincher’s Zodiac and the multiple Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs, Prisoners feels closer in spirit to Ben Affleck’s terrific directorial debut Gone Baby Gone. Like that film, this is also a labyrinthine story about the search for kidnapped children that leaves you to ponder over a crucial moral issue.
On a cold, grey day in suburban Pennsylvania, while their families have gathered for a Thanksgiving meal, two young girls go missing. A detective, Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), is called upon to investigate their disappearance. Suspicions focus on a creepy fella, Alex (Paul Dano), who’d parked his RV not far from where the girls had been playing. But when Loki doesn’t have enough evidence to keep Alex behind bars, one of the girls’ fathers, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), convinced that Alex has a hand in their kidnapping, picks up the guy from his aunt’s home and takes matters into his own hands.
Can torture ever be justified…even as a means to get to the truth? That’s the question at the heart of Prisoners, this dark, unsettling thriller whose moody atmospherics sit nicely with the film’s murky sense of what’s right and wrong. Touching upon themes of vigilantism and vengeance, writer-director Denis Villeneuve creates an air of almost unbearable intensity, and he’s aided nicely by Roger Deakins’ chilly cinematography.
But the film is riveting from start to finish because of the solid acting on display. Maria Bello is in good form as Keller’s helpless wife, as is Melissa Leo as Alex’s frail aunt. Terrence Howard and Viola Davis bring layers to their parts as the second couple whose daughter has also gone missing. Hugh Jackman shines as the desperate father, a character that becomes more complex as the plot thickens. You have to wonder if Keller always had an angry streak in him, or if his daughter’s kidnapping sparked off the rage. Jake Gyllenhaal too works up quite the sweat as the increasingly frustrated detective.
Despite an overlong final act, Prisoners is a remarkable exploration of characters under pressure. Packed with surprising twists, it keeps you guessing until the end. I’m going with four out of five. Don’t miss it.