What moral lines would you cross to save your kidnapped child?
That question has been the basis of countless films and TV shows. From “Taken” to “24,” such works invite viewers along on a spree of righteous vengeance. But remarkably, director Denis Villeneuve’s latest, “Prisoners,” transcends such conventionality: what could be the stuff of exploitation cinema becomes the fabric of a provocative moral drama.
“Prisoners” wastes no time establishing its central conflict: gruff handyman Keller Dover (Jackman) and his family are visiting friends for Thanksgiving when Dover’s daughter (and her companion of the same age) abruptly go missing. Their disappearance coincides with the vanishing of a suspicious RV from the neighborhood…but when police detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) investigates, there’s no physical evidence to be found. Undeterred, Dover promptly embarks on a savage quest for his taken child – but such a search costs him far more than he imagines.
“Prisoners” is held aloft by searing performances from both Jackman and Gyllenhaal – especially Jackman. Gone is the good-natured roguishness of his “Wolverine” days: this incarnation of Jackman is a volcanic figure teetering precariously between sanity and madness. Gyllenhaal is never pushed to the same psychological extremes, but delivers admirably as a supporting player/character foil.
The effect of their performances is heightened by the David Fincher-style setting: gray, cold, rainy, and impossibly bleak. As the story unfolds, a pervasive sense of dread settles into one’s bones – a general sense of uncanny menace that lingers long after the credits roll. This tonal darkness isn’t readily reducible to any specific elements…it simply arises naturally from the subject matter, the psycho-emotionally churning narrative, and the film techniques employed. I’ve seen a lot of grim movies, and “Prisoners” is far-and-away one of the most affecting.
In many ways, “Prisoners” is the anti-”Taken.” Here, there are few black-and-white moral lines between Heroic Wronged Parent and Evil Human Trafficker. When Dover brutally tortures a suspect (for information he may or may not actually possess), it’s horrifying and clearly aberrant…yet too often in works like this, the moral obscenity of such deeds is washed away in a rush of cinematic adrenaline. Despite the thematic ambiguity Villeneuve embraces, then, a strong sense of cosmic (perhaps even karmic) justice pervades the film; commendably, it does so without becoming a ham-fisted parable. Similarly, the question of the problem of evil – why a benign God allow such monstrous things to unfold? – is teased throughout, but Villeneuve resists the temptation to offer easy answers.
Is it worth seeing?
“Prisoners” is much more cerebral than others of its genre, and ranks with “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Se7en.” Those put off by such films (as noted, “Prisoners” contains graphic and disturbing – though never gratuitous – violence) will probably find the movie draining and unsettling…which it most assuredly is.
That said, it’s probably one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year. Deliberately paced without ever becoming dull, and intensely dark without ever becoming exploitative, “Prisoners” is the kind of film far more dramatic thrillers should aspire to be. Highly recommended.
Exceptional. An intense, disturbing, and brilliant journey into human character.