If your most precious treasure, your child, suddenly disappeared without a trace and was feared dead, how far would you go to rescue them and ensure that justice is served to whoever is responsible? If the situation warranted it, would you supersede the law and be willing to cross the line in a cruel and immoral quest for the truth? This conflict is at the very core of Prisoners, a bleak and unsettling, but completely absorbing crime thriller directed by great Canadian filmmaker, Denis Villeneuve (Maelstrom, Incendies), and written by Aaron Guzikowski. It covers the week following the disappearance of two young girls, focusing predominantly on Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), the distraught father of one who psychologically unravels in wake of the incident, and the dedicated, highly competent lead detective, Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a loner with a dark past and an impeccable record.
Following their disappearance from the home of Keller’s friends (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), the first lead is a dilapidated RV that had been seen parked on their street earlier in the day, but the mentally simple driver who is arrested, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), is eventually let go because of insufficient evidence.
Keller, who works in construction and is a man seemingly prepared for anything, becomes quickly frustrated by the police’s inability to hold their only suspect, and is unconvinced that Alex is innocent. While he is taking the situation into his own hands, and raising suspicion along the way, Loki conducts his investigation, finding himself caught in a frustrating maze full of loose ends. With time running out and very little making sense, Loki too begins to break. There are many layers of development in this film - most are unexpected, and shouldn’t be discussed here - but Prisoners is a terrific thriller. For 159 minutes it never relinquishes its grip on the audience.
The moral crises are what give this procedural a grey area to work in. Not only does Keller resort to brutal tactics, justifying his actions through his devout Christianity, but Loki finds himself becoming increasingly aggressive, fueled by his impossible task and his own demons (intriguingly left unclear). We see how an individual can be driven to their darkest realms when under extreme stress in an irrational quest for justice fueled by blind anger and despair, desperation, and a father's guilt and sense of responsibility. It is remarkable how this distress can lead to acts arguably worse than those being avenged.
Keller is convinced that Alex knows something, and some of his behaviour certainly suggests he has more involvement than the evidence suggests. He imprisons, and tortures, Alex. But what if he is wrong? Keller has crossed the line already. He can only take it further and hope that his inhumane actions lead to a discovery. Watching him consider what to do next is compelling.
Now, plenty has been said about Jackman – an Oscar nomination on the cards etc - and he is certainly in form. I admit, I have doubted his range over the years, but this is a performance quite unlike any other he has delivered. He radiates anger, grappling with what he has done and what he is prepared to do. This is just as powerful in quiet moments of contemplation as it is in his explosive outbursts. But, for me, the star of Prisoners is Gyllenhaal, one of the most talented actors currently working. He is absolutely outstanding, creating a detective who is unique and different, highly competent and clearly flawed. Subtle characterizations, like his nervous eye twitching and the fact that he channels every ounce of energy into his work, ensure he is wholly believable. Watching him piece together this mess is worth the watch alone. It is interesting to reflect on the two approaches adopted by the Keller and Loki, and considering how events (and the eventual outcome) were influenced by the decisions they make.
I wasn’t sure what to make of one revelation, but this ambitious film has been occupying my mind ever since. Like many great thrillers it has continued to trouble and intrigue since the viewing, and I now find the twists not only plausible, but intelligently conceived. The atmosphere is ominous throughout, established from the get-go – the wintry Pennsylvania suburbia and surrounding woods provides an icy, eerie location, while Deakins’ brilliant photography, and Johannsson’s haunting score also warrant praise. Suspense is drawn out of everything.
Another feature I loved about this film was the fact that for a stretch, we are ahead of the characters, having seen through some of the red herrings, but no clearer the truth. While we are predominantly kept in the dark, in an unusual twist, the audience finds themselves ahead of Loki.
Prisoners is an intense, unsettling and often nasty film. If you like crime thrillers, this is a very good one. The performances, and especially Gyllenhaal’s, are enough to warrant enduring the stress.
[rating=4] and a half
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.