One can envision a very poor, melodramatic bit of nonsense when hearing the plot description for the film Prisoners. The latest by acclaimed director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) is about the search for two kidnapped young girls, partially following the father (Hugh Jackman) of one and elsewhere trailing the detective (Jake Gyllenhall) in charge of solving the case. It’s a tale that has been told many times, occasionally with some accomplishment, more often than not as two hours of tears and desk-clearing anger. Both of these actions occur in Prisoners, but what makes it a tense, somewhat moving film is the surprising restraint Villeneuve displays.
The script by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) sets up the groundwork for a quiet, contemplative outing. Each family is introduced; Keller (Jackman) and Grave Dover (Maria Bello), along with old friends Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis). We see them get together on Thanksgiving, with age-old habits set in already. Instead of introducing each character one-by-one over a whole act, Prisoners plops us down into their daily lives with very little sense of what’s to come; bubbling worry over the missing kids all the more potent. Keller asks his teenaged son where the girls are, before checking back home down the block. Slight confusion leads to concern, cascading into terror as the realization that the situation if for real.
Largely, Villeneuve tries to keep his picture from descending into weeping wives and walls being punched. A major part of the movie’s success is the Gyllenhaal character. He’s a cop with a stellar track record and genuinely is doing his best to crack the case. He isn’t another in a long line of detectives whom take the case whom with them. Sure, we never really see Gyllenhaal at home, but he also is more than a stereotype obsessive do-gooder. He argues with the police captain; he doesn’t howl and act self-righteous. The debates are about little – if important – details. There’s a slight arrogance to how Gyllenhaal plays the part, giving him a calm demeanor when the tensions shoot up, making for a compelling dynamic when he goes head-to-head with Jackman’s raging father.
The human drama Jackman is put through doesn’t hit as delicately. The dad pushed to his limits, performing questionable actions for a perceived worthy cause is handled fine; it merely rings as familiar. There are no fresh turns in his character’s actions. Jackman is serviceable in the role, and his righteous vitriol is palpable. Yet, it’s difficult to get lost in his performance; the acting never recedes into the back background and Jackman’s effort is perpetually noticeable.
Also keeping Prisoners back is the final act, unraveling its mysteries (who truly took the little ones, are the still alive) in a manner too neat by an inch. It’s a small misstep more than made up for in the sheer eerie mood Villeneueve conjures, amplified by haunting imagery by cinematographer Roger Deakins. Shots of cold, candle-lit street dig down the bone, as a slow pan over the vast swath of areas the girls could be resonates as vividly as anything else in the movie. It’s an often powerful film falling short of greatness.
Prisoners opens wide all across Seattle tomorrow.