Thought- (and debate-)provoking morality tale or Silence of the Lambs-y thriller? Career-best showcase for Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal or occasional waste of Terrence Howard’s and Viola Davis’ talent? Powerful and razor-sharp English-language debut from director Denis Villeneuve or 150-minute-long drama that feels like a race down a dark and twisted highway?
Prisoners fittingly hits at the start of the “real” movie season, when Academy members take notice, and the superheroes and special effects head to the nearest cave to hibernate. And its well-worth any and all attention that it will surely get.
Jackman is Keller Dover, a local contractor in rural Conyers, Pennsylvania (actually filmed in Conyers, Georgia), whose family is visiting the neighbors (Howard and Davis) for Thanksgiving. Late in the afternoon, each family notices that its own young daughter has gone missing from a walk around the neighborhood. The only lead is a run-down RV that the girls had noticed earlier in the day and is now gone.
When police track the vehicle down, the driver is revealed to be a young man named Alex (Paul Dano) who has the IQ of a two-year-old and is quickly dismissed and released by lead detective Loki (Gyllenhaal). All the signs, though, still point to Alex, so Dover takes it on himself to put Alex into custody himself, kidnapping the young man and chaining him up inside an abandoned building.
What follows is a brutal, harrowing morality tale that asks (and answers) the question, “How far would you go for your own family?” The deeper he gets, the further down Dover spirals into his obsession with finding his child at any cost. And throughout Prisoners, the audience is just as in the dark as he is.
Jackman and Gyllenhaal, frankly, have never been better, and it’s not even close. Their fearlessly deep and honest portrayals will have you almost immediately forgetting that you’re watching the same guys who were once Wolverine and Prince of Persia respectively. And the rest of the cast is up to the rask, too, including Dano, Melissa Leo as his reclusive mother, and even Howard and Davis in their criminally underwritten roles.
Villeneuve, working from a script by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband), has expertly crafted a razor sharp and insanely intense thriller, rivaling Silence of the Lambs, Seven, and the Usual Suspects with its brilliant performances, twisty-turny plot, and honest, raw dialogue. And the stunning cinematography by the legendary Roger Deakins (can this man please win an Oscar soon?) elevates it that much further.
It’s the shortest 2 and 1/2 hours you’ll spend in the theater this year, and even though there are moments that could have been trimmed, the final product feels and taut as a tightrope and is just as scary.