How far are you willing to go to save the ones you love most? Are you willing to break every sense of morality you've ever held dear? Are you willing to stop being human and become a monster? These are the questions asked in Denis Villeneuve's devastating American debut, Prisoners, an unforgettable crime thriller that is guaranteed to be the most talked about and fiercely debated movie of the season. Period.
There's a heavy pall that hangs over every frame of Prisoners. If one were to walk into it without knowing a thing, they would recognize instantly that this is not going to be a pleasure trip. The film is cold, wet, the emotions crippling and ugly as sin, but you won't be able to look away no matter how tough it gets. Shedding every ounce of glamour, Hugh Jackman retains a Wolverine-esque ferocity as Keller Dover, a rugged carpenter in a small blue-collar Pennsylvania town. On a dreary Thanksgiving Day, Keller and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) take their two kids to dinner at the home of Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis). It's a relatively quiet and seemingly normal experience for the friendly couples, but it all goes terrible wrong when it's discovered that the families' two youngest daughters have gone missing.
Tension mounts and concern turns to hysteria after a sweep of the neighborhood turns up nothing. Keller learns that the girls had been playing on a parked RV that someone may have been hiding in. The lonely but cocky Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned to the case, having never left one unresolved in his career. When he comes across that same RV later in the night, inside he finds the panicked and clearly disturbed Alex Frost (Paul Dano), who makes a failed attempt to flee the scene. The cops can get nothing out of the barely audible and mentally-impaired Frost after a lengthy interrogation, and it drives Keller into a rage when they release their only suspect into the care of his loving aunt (Melissa Leo).
A fierce survivalist who prides himself on being prepared for any eventuality, Keller is blindsided by what has happened and his inability to do anything about it. Realizing that all his preparation and order failed to protect the people that he loves, Keller quickly grows frustrated at the lack of evidence against Frost, and Loki's lack of headway on the case. So Keller descends into chaos; kidnapping Frost, locking him away in a secret location, and torturing him mercilessly in hopes of gaining a confession.
Written by Aaron Guzikowski, his script turning up on the Black List a few years ago, Prisoners is a deeply unnerving and nuanced morality play that forces you to examine these deeply flawed characters from multiple perspectives. Is there any reason under the sun that Keller's actions can be justified? What if Frost is guilty? Do the ends justify the means? But even worse, what does Keller do if Frost is actually innocent? Even Loki, who is clearly doing his best under an intense amount of public and personal pressure, is a victim of his past success. He's overconfident, even cocky, and dismissive of anything that doesn't totally agree with his own theories.
This is masterful filmmaking by Villeneuve, who already has a Best Foreign Language Oscar nomination for the equally-affecting Incendies. Prisoners is a first-rate exercise in evoking dread and intrigue, and while not on the same level of violence as David Fincher's Seven or Zodiac, the atmosphere of terror is just as palpable. At 2 1/2 hours, the film is an endurance test, one that blankets you in the ugliness of revenge and obsession. Villeneuve pitches each scene perfectly, creating an endless reservoir of tension with an unnatural ease.
We've never seen Jackman in a role like this before, all righteous fury and open wounds, but connected to something human and genuine. We understand Keller's deteriorating emotional grip, as he understands the statistics on missing person's cases. With each day that passes the less likely his daughter will be found alive. Perhaps best of all is Gyllenhaal, who seems to have completely reinvented himself playing tenacious cops on the hunt. His Loki is considerably moodier and more world-weary than the cowboy cop he played in End of Watch, but he has more of an authoritative presence than he ever has before. How he can go back to making romantic comedies after this is unfathomable.
There are numerous twists, red herrings, and deceptions that will kick you in the teeth, and perhaps it takes one swerve too many in the final stretch. At its most blunt, the film is brutal and unflinching, and probably won't make for repeat viewing to the casual movie crowd. Prisoners is a top notch, fearless thriller with a darkly frayed edge, and it won't easily be forgotten.