Directors: Denis Villeneuve
Studio: Alcon Entertainment
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis
Two little girls go missing after slipping out of the house after a Thanksgiving dinner. When the weary, overworked rural Pennsylvania police force can’t seem to nail down the true culprit, one of the distraught fathers abducts a man declared innocent by the police.
In an abandoned apartment building, he keeps the guy hostage and systematically tortures him day after day, hoping to gain a confession. With allusions to Gitmo and vigilante justice pretty much inescapable, the thriller Prisoners—directed by Denis Villeneuve (Incendies), written by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) and meticulously shot by Roger Deakins—wears its morality play, violence-begets-violence trappings unsubtly but effectively.
At heart, it’s a detective movie with a dose of Mystic River–style doom and gloom. It starts grim and miserable, stays that way and only gets grimmer and more miserable as its characters (and plot) become progressively more unhinged. Considering its cast, crew and trappings, Prisoners will undoubtedly be taken every bit as seriously as its makers intend it to be. That’s okay, though, because it is well made, very tense and often conveys a sense of the unease, melancholy and paranoia that haunt contemporary American life. Hugh Jackman is especially strong as the Springsteen-loving, God-fearing, deer-hunting, emotionally stifled father who stocks his basement with survival goods. Playing a very troubled soul, he’s pitiable and hateful as a distraught, self-righteous vigilante who alienates his pill-popping wife (Maria Bello, doing her damnedest with an underwritten role) and son (Dylan Minnette) and unleashes his inner monster. As the parents of the other missing little girl, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis do their best with muddy, undeveloped characters whose moral stand against Jackman’s whacked-out sadism never rises beyond the level of “It’s not right!” Jake Gyllenhaal as maverick Detective Loki (yeah, really, that’s his name) delivers the goods as a haunted, tattooed, tic-ridden loner filling a void by working obsessively. His and Jackman’s too few scenes together are reason alone to slog through almost two and a half hours of lots of vein popping, yelling and wearing of the old hair shirt.
The movie’s last half hour goes for the throat in juicy, straight-up psycho thriller style with one cast member dialing up the crazy and, finally, unraveling the (absurdly convoluted) mystery without, happily, undoing the angst that’s come before.