Classy trash, Prisoners opens with a scene of holy sacrifice, the first of many violent acts sanctified as virtuous—necessary—by an increasingly grotesque narrative. In the Pennsylvania woods, a carpenter played by Hugh Jackman guides his quiet teenage son (Dylan Minnette) in the killing of his first deer. A prayer is uttered. A shot is fired. The carpenter, named Keller Dover, is a true believer in the Lord, and he gets results.
Times are neither flush nor terrible, but Keller scrapes to make his mortgage payments. He is a righteous man living for better circumstances. They do not come.
The story moves to Thanksgiving dinner. He and his wife, played by Maria Bello, visit their neighbors for the traditional meal. Their hosts are a step up the socioeconomic ladder. Terrence Howard and Viola Davis play the Birches, who, like the Dovers, have a preteen daughter. The girls, who are friends, disappear near the home. At first they seem more misplaced than lost. A frantic search ensues. No one is found.
The police are brought in. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a loner detective named Loki who goes by the book, wearily, for a while, until he’s goaded into action by Keller. The rest of Prisoners, which is an extremely well-made thriller dressed up in a few ambiguities for show, follows Keller down a bloody rabbit hole leading to old, unsolved murders and figments of evil very much alive and unwell.
The specter of child abduction is enough to make most parents sick, which is why most films (this one included) take pains to offer relief and solace through extreme brutality en route to a conclusion. Nothing’s bad enough for the perps of a novel or film such as Mystic River, which Prisoners resembles somewhat, though at its creepiest and most ambitious the film more strongly evokes David Fincher’s Zodiac. Prisoners casts such an effectively sustained mood of dread in its first hour, you hardly notice the familiarity of the mystery clichés and, in particular, the overstressing of one clue that renders a subsequent major plot revelation less than revelatory.
Paul Dano worms around as Alex, the chief suspect in the case, a mentally challenged boy-man whose RV was seen near the site of the girls’ disappearance. Loki books him on suspicion but cannot hold him for lack of evidence. This allows Keller to become judge, jury and potential executioner in the story, kidnapping Alex (who knows more than he’s telling) and handcuffing him to a grungy apartment bathroom sink, away from the prying eyes of the law. The torturous beatings commence, with and without instruments of pain in Keller’s meaty hands. They’re tough to watch. We’re not meant to disapprove. Dano has played so many shifty, unpleasant ferrets in his career, the casting of this actor in this sort of part is shorthand for “he has it coming, no matter what.”
Director Denis Villeneuve is the star here, and he finds truth even in the junk aspects of Prisoners. The Quebecois filmmaker’s work includes the remarkable Incendies, and in Prisoners, which was shot in Georgia, he works closely with cinematographer Roger Deakins (making digital look nearly as rich and foreboding as film stock) to create a series of scenes, interior and exterior, that are grim trials of a parent’s soul. Eventually the plot throws in everything from puzzle pieces to actual serpents and, because Loki (named, oddly, for the Norse god of trickery) isn’t much of a character, Jackman’s Keller dominates the proceedings. He’s our Mr. Everyman with a hammer, so sturdy of body and stalwart of earnest spirit, Keller’s righteousness is never long in doubt.
Around the midpoint, screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski’s story starts layering in the red herrings and widening the circle of sleaze. Throughout this beautifully made, slightly specious exercise in Old Testament revenge, the character-study aspects of Prisoners coexist intriguingly with the grisly inhumanity components. Some will take it and like it, all the way to the heart of darkness. Others may feel they’ve been jacked with, manipulated. Villeneuve collaborates with unusual sensitivity with his actors. The script operates on one level; the interpreters on another, higher level.
Prisoners (R) ★★★☆☆