The wages of sin, guilt, vengeance and redemption weigh heavy on the characters of “Prisoners,” a spellbinding, sensationally effective thriller with a complex moral center that marks a grand-slam English-lingo debut for the gifted Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve. Powered by an unusually rich, twisty script by Aaron Guzikowski (“Contraband”) and career-best performances from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, this tale of two Pennsylvania families searching for their kidnapped daughters sustains an almost unbearable tension for two-and-a-half hours of screen time, satisfying as both a high-end genre exercise and a searing adult drama of the sort Hollywood almost never makes anymore. Fully deserving of mention in the same breath as “Seven,” “Mystic River” and “In the Bedroom,” this Sept. 20 Warners release may prove too intense for some viewers, but should ride strong reviews and word of mouth to above-average R-rated returns. It immediately enters the ring as an awards-season heavyweight.
Though at first glance the pic would appear to have little in common with his previous work, Villeneuve has long shown an interest in the psychological and emotional consequences of violence, as evidenced by 2009’s serenely chilling, black-and-white “Polytechnique” (about a real-life Canadian mass shooting) and especially 2010’s Oscar-nominated “Incendies,” which “Prisoners” echoes in its fragmented central mystery and its theme of the good and ill transmitted from parents to children. But in every respect, the new film finds Villeneuve working on his biggest and most ambitious canvas to date and, perhaps most impressive, flawlessly catching the moods and mores of small-town, God-fearing America.
The movie announces its measured, quietly confident tone right from the opening scene of a father-son deer-hunting trip, the first of many images of predators pursuing their prey. “Be ready,” says the father, Pennsylvania carpenter Keller Dover (Jackman), to the teenage boy (Dylan Minnette), a crucifix dangling from the rear-view mirror, a late autumn chill hanging in the air. Back at home, where Keller’s wife, Grace (Maria Bello), and 6-year-old daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), safely await his return, the basement is stocked with enough emergency provisions for a nuclear holocaust. (Among other thing, “Prisoners” is very much a movie about what people have in their basements.) All the canned goods in the world, however, cannot shield the Dovers from what is about to happen next.
Theirs is the kind of quaint suburban street where people walk over to the neighbor’s house for Thanksgiving dinner and feel relatively insulated from the world’s violent ills. Yet it is during just such a Thanksgiving that Anna wanders off unsupervised along with 7-year-old Joy, the daughter of family friends Nancy and Franklin Birch (Viola Davis and Terrence Howard, respectively). By dessert, both have vanished without a trace. The only clue: Earlier in the day, the girls were seen playing around a camper van parked in front of a vacant house down the road, the faint sound of a radio suggesting that someone was inside, patiently watching.
Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is spending his Thanksgiving alone, flirting with the waitress in a lonely Chinese diner, when he first responds to the case. In the best film-noir manner, rain is sheeting down, and the camera of the great d.p. Roger Deakins (who has shot the film in wintry blues and blacks with an expressionist edge) pushes in slowly from behind. Loki, we are told, has never failed to solve a case, though this is at odds with the man’s solemn demeanor, his haunted gaze and the elaborate tattoos jutting out from his collar suggesting reserves of private rage. Compare this to the eager-beaver murder sleuth Gyllenhaal played in David Fincher’s “Zodiac” and the full breadth of his impressive range immediately comes into focus.
The camper van is soon located along with its owner, a gangly, inarticulate man-child named Alex (played to creepy perfection by Paul Dano), who lives with his aunt (Melissa Leo) in the kind of run-down, cluttered tract house where serial killers and other movie deviants tend to reside. But awareness of such familiar tropes — and awareness of our awareness of them — is one of “Prisoners’” canny strengths. So it turns out that Alex is not the kidnapper — or at least, that there’s no physical evidence tying him to the scene — and the police are forced to let him go. Which is when Keller, who’s as sure as we are that Alex is guilty, takes matters into his own hands, abducting the suspect and chaining him up in an abandoned apartment building that belonged to his father. The movie’s tally of kidnappers now stands at two.
And the puzzle of “Prisoners” has only just begun to assemble. Following a lead to the home of an elderly priest (Len Cariou), Loki discovers a rotting corpse in a hidden cellar. Then, at exactly the one-hour mark, another shifty young man appears on the scene, triggering a whole new set of suspicions. All the while, Alex sits in hock, violently tortured and interrogated by Keller (who tells his wife he’s off helping the police) in an effort to discern the girls’ whereabouts.
With each successive revelation, Guzikowski’s brilliant script satisfies the necessary machinations while always flowing effortlessly from his vivid, multi-dimensional characters. That delicate balance extends to Villeneuve’s direction, which maintains a vise-like grip on the viewer without ever resorting to cheap shock effects or compromising the integrity of the human drama. Yet this is also a film that breathes, that knows it has the audience in its palm and can take time out for the kind of incidental, character-deepening scenes that usually end up on the cutting-room floor. In less assured hands, a movie called “Prisoners” with a plot like this would be an invitation to disaster, heavy on self-conscious allegory, symbolism and moral debate. (Everyone, don’t you see, is a prisoner of something — of time, of grief, of his own psyche.) In Villeneuve’s, nothing is belabored, the thorny questions of right and wrong bubbling under the surface without ever being declaimed.
Jackman has simply never been better than as this true believer forced to question his beliefs. Effortlessly, the Australian actor projects a solid, rugged Americanness, the acme of a man whose home is his castle and who sees himself as his family’s protector. It is a performance void of vanity or the desire to be loved by the audience, and moment to moment it is exhilarating to watch. In just a handful of scenes each, Bello and Davis suggest the full, inexpressible weight of motherly grief. Leo, given a role rife with opportunities to ham it up, instead plays things with the sober conviction of a disappointed life, another standout in a movie with nary a squandered performance in the mix.
In addition to Deakins’ stellar work, longtime Clint Eastwood editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach have done a formidable job of assembling the pic’s densely constructed narrative web. Score by Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson (also making his big-studio debut) strikes just the right haunting, mournful notes.