*** out of ****
I waited until late on a chilly fall night to see Prisoners. There’s something special about gloomy thrillers that go well with the brisk autumn season. I recall similar chills in the air when my Dad took me to see The Fugitive in the fall of 1993. That was a film that introduced me to that tense feeling you get in your stomach when the suspense of a movie is truly effective. Fifteen minutes into Prisoners, I knew that in spite of my fatigue from a long day of walking in the park followed by work, I was going to be wide awake through this movie.
The film starts off with one of the its two lead characters, Hugh Jackman, reciting The Lord’s Prayer in narration as he is shown with his son hunting a deer, whose meat they will share with another family on Thanksgiving. Soon he will meet the other lead, Jake Gyllenhaal, as the young police detective sent to investigate the unsettling disappearance of his small daughter and her friend.
Jackman plays an independent contractor living in a Pennsylvania suburb. The abduction sends his already stern survivalist attitude off the rails as he has nothing but doubt toward Gyllenhaal’s handling of the case. A suspect played by Paul Dano, was in an RV -mysteriously parked in the neighborhood during the disappearance. When he is captured, he turns out to be a mentally disabled man under the care of his elderly aunt (Melissa Leo). There is no workable evidence pointing toward his involvement in the disappearance.
After Dano is released from custody, Jackman kidnaps him and lets the father of the other girl (Terrence Howard) in on the plan to torture the young man until he confesses. The other father is horrified by Jackman’s decision but assists him and eventually caves in from the trauma on top of trauma, telling his own wife (Viola Davis) what they are doing. Jackman’s character, who has kept this extreme measure a secret from his now-hysterical wife (Maria Bello), gains the cooperation of the couple, who in spite of their doubt and terror of the situation, are so desperate to get their girl back, they can’t bring themselves to stop him.
I knew this much from the film’s trailer, but I wasn’t prepared for how unlikeable the film deliberately makes Jackman’s character. His vigilantism isn’t portrayed as heroic. When the movie shows us Gyllenhaal’s simultaneous investigation, we are frustrated to know how much bigger this case might be than Jackman’s suspicions of one creepy-looking guy. His disturbing actions, based on little faith in professional police work, start to become more damaging to the crisis.
What follows however, isn’t a deeper exploration of morality versus desperation. This movie is like an extended television crime drama with preposterous revelations in store. I will still say that this doesn’t stop it from being downright chilling.
The screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski is a completely original creation and not the remake of a foreign thriller or the adaptation of an over-the-top mystery novel. It does seem to find influence from films like The Pledge with Jack Nicholson and some parts reminded of George Sluizer’s The Vanishing.
Director Dennis Villeneuve from Quebec, makes his first American film here, and like what Nicolas Winding Refn did when directing Drive -or many other foreign directors have done when visiting the U.S. to make a standard genre film - he is viewing American life with fresh eyes. The entire film really captures the look and feel of working-class suburbia in a way that Hollywood directors tend to stylize beyond familiarity.
The realism meeting the nightmarish dread is a great accomplishment on his part. This is a mystery that does what it is supposed to: It keeps us guessing. What’s shaky about Villeneuve’s genuine atmosphere assisted with classy cinematography by Roger Deakins and haunting music score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, is that it elevates Guzikowski’s B-movie story to a height that might disappoint someone who thought they were watching a great work of art.
I feel as though many thought-provoking themes were imposed on this project by its director but they never turned out to be part of the film’s core foundation which is just another machine intent on keeping us on the edge of our seats. It does just that.