On paper, Prisoners seems like its destined to be forgotten as yet another unremarkable thriller. The film concerns the abduction of two young girls and focuses its attention on two men searching for them; Hugh Jackman as Keller Dover – zealous carpenter and father of one of the girls – and Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki, the lead investigator on the case. Keller, driven to the edge of reason by his daughter’s disappearance, begins to take matters into his own hands while Loki must wrestle with Keller’s increasingly unhinged behaviour and a baffling accumulation of evidence. Prisoners seems like the archetypal example of a revenge flick here, a Man on Fire-esque eruption of violence justified by the desperation of a loving father; yet another film opining that the best response to terrible acts is to resort to terror.
Prisoners isn’t that film. Jackman’s character does resort to violence, and torture, and the kind of behaviour that Hollywood has taught us is a fitting response in these situations. Keller’s wrath is directed towards Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a vacant imbecile whose dilapidated, ominous RV loomed, unexplained, near the Dover house shortly before the girls’ disappearance. After Jones is released from police custody, with no evidence to tie him to any wrongdoing, Keller takes matters into his own hands. But writer Aaron Guzikowski refuses to celebrate or tolerate his actions. Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), Keller’s neighbour whose daughter was also taken, acts as conscience, asking questions revenge films avoid too often. What if Jones is innocent? What if Keller’s resolve is misinformed? And, more importantly, even if Keller is right, can his actions truly be justified?
This is not to suggest that the film does not sympathise with Keller’s plight. How could it not? More than any film I’ve seen, Prisoners captures the overwhelming bleakness that consumes anyone who’s lost a child; much of the credit here lies with Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (in his first English language film; his last film, Incendies, was nominated for an Oscar) and living legend Roger Deakins as Director of Photography. The film is impeccably photographed; it’s largely classically framed (aside from occasionally grandiose shots that emphasise the scale of the police search) but with precision and an astounding use of lighting. It’s grimly shot, but notice how greyness only fills the film after the two girls disappear; Thanksgiving sunlight turns to the dull ache before a storm, a dark storm that never seems to pass. The light bleeds out of the film just as the life bleeds out of the families’ lives.
The dark palette and atmosphere of sickly dread throughout reminded me strongly of a more restrained David Fincher; not a comparison I make lightly. The subject matter resonates with a handful of Fincher films as well; like Zodiac, it’s a police procedural that stretches beyond two hours, including a tense scene with Jake Gyllenhaal in a dark basement. It shares attributes with both Se7en and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, though they’re difficult to discuss without verging on spoiler territory. As someone disinterested in guessing twists, I did pick the direction Prisoners was headed in its last act; this is actually testament to the tightness of the film’s construction. Despite its 150-plus minutes, there’s no shot, action, or line of dialogue wasted: paying attention to apparently extraneous details in the first act reveals the film’s agenda.
As you might have gathered, I was very much impressed by Prisoners. It’s not a perfect film, however. There’s a disparity in tone between the first and last act; the gritty realism of the former at odds with the heightened tone of the conclusion. Fincher is a master of calibrating audience expectations to suit the material, whereas Villeneuve doesn’t quite demonstrate the same skills. Gyllenhaal and Jackman are both impressive in roles that demand simplicity and raw emotion, but the female cast is largely sidelined (the film only passes the Bechdel test thanks to a brief conversation between the two daughters in an early scene). Talented actresses like Maria Bello and Viola Davis are given comparatively little to do, though an unrecognisable Melissa Leo impresses in a small role. The all-encompassing bleakness is arguably a weakness as well; it can be a challenging film to watch, particularly during the middle stretch.
That grim environment ensures that the audience is fully engaged however. Prisoners never feels like the conventional thriller it so easily could have been, and as the film’s final, tense moments unfold, there’s no sense that a happy ending is imminent. But what demonstrates the effectiveness of the film is that – if you’re anything like me – you desperately crave that happy ending. I was literally biting my nails, willing the filmmakers to provide a ray of sunlight to illuminate the gloom.