Generally speaking there are two kinds of narratives: the ones that focus on the plot and ones that focus on the characters – yes, all movies have both, but almost any story can be boiled down this way, where one aspect is essentially a red herring and the other is the true center piece. Can Prisoners, the first English language film from director of the Oscar-nominated Incendies Denis Villeneuve, be broken down this way too? Well, it’s hard to say what it is… and that’s one of the things that makes it such a fundamentally strong film – it is just as strong of a character study as it is a nail-biting crime caper. There are so many things to look at, a wonderfully layered film that operates on multiple emotional wavelengths, making it the truest kind of example of a movie that you could view over and over again and discover something new every time.
The bare bones of the story is that one dreary Thanksgiving evening, while the Dover and Birch families are enjoying each other’s company, the young daughters of each family don’t come home from their afternoon walk. The police spring into action and initially arrest a scrawny creep (Paul Dano) in a dilapidated RV, but let him free due to lack of evidence. But Dover patriarch Keller, played by Hugh Jackman in his strongest cinematic performance to date, is unconvinced of the man’s innocence and takes it upon himself to get what he believes is the truth, so he kidnaps and tortures the man. In part this movie deserves praise as a complex and unforgiving were-you-paying-attention apologue; it’s a subtle art, making a guessable though not obvious whodunit movie like this, a film where all of the clues are carefully formed before its audience to be pieced together at their discretion according to their own inclination. It is a nice bit of fun and a modicum of relief from the unrelenting nature of the film to chew over whether or not you’ve figured out who the real bad guy is, like playing a game of Clue. Prisoners is also just as taut as an exploration of the power of desperation, on some level serving as an opportunity for self-reflection for moviegoers - its far easier to step into a protagonist’s shoes with a film like this than with, say, Cast Away. The tragedy of the missing children serves as a plausible test of resolve, and a catalogue of possible responses colors the film. Jackman’s Keller resorts to outward anger and alcoholism; his wife Grace (Mario Bello) turns into a catatonic and emotional wreck; Birch father Franklin (Terrence Howard) stumbles over his own uncertainty and fear; the placid, iron-clad demeanor of police Detective Loki, played with astounding subtlety by Jake Gyllenhaal, starts to cut into his very character, causing him to fray around the edges.
Unlike the classic revenge thriller trope, one of the fortes of Prisoners is that it never defaults to exploitation – the scenes of torture, for example, as well as the rapid-fire action-fueled conclusion are thrilling to be sure but are still taken in stride as a believable and logical progression of the story and not as some glorified detour designed to titillate the audience. Cinematographer and common Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins receives the film’s only Oscar nomination, an apt recognition for the grim beauty that washes over Prisoners. It would be tongue-in-cheek to lump Prisoners lack of nominations in with the usual situation of a some genial crowd-pleaser being recognized in lieu of recognizing the severely austere feature – Prisoners, clocking in at a grandiose 153 minutes, is as rough and heavy as it gets. I might be content to let this film be passed over so many times if Gyllenhaal had been nominated. His slow-burning Detective Loki is the perfect antithesis to Jackman’s raging father figure as well as the rest of the outwardly toiling characters, a mysterious and curious tattooed anti-hero whose inner-turmoil ebbs and flows into his outward emotion in attenuated grimaces and increasingly frequent facial tics. This was a pinnacle performance for Gyllenhaal – if justice be served, he’ll get a consolation Oscar in the years to come.