Two neighbourhood girls go missing during Thanksgiving dinner. Their families grow increasingly frantic as the hours tick by. When an arrested suspect is released due to insufficient evidence, the girls' fathers opt to take the law into their own hands.
TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL: A surprise addition at Telluride, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners snuck into town over the weekend and left audiences impressed, or feeling like they ought to be. 'It’s long, but it doesn’t feel long," a young woman said, advocating for the film as we queued for another screening. 'It felt pretty long to me," her boyfriend added.
Prisoners is most interesting when it begs certain questions of masculinity.
At 153 minutes, Prisoners is pretty long; with its ornate plotting and expertly delayed gratifications, it has to be. On the page (screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski) it is a classic abduction thriller, of the type that lends itself to extreme drinking games: Stay parched through the 'every parent’s worst nightmare’ set-up, say, then down a whole bottle of something when a deranged mum or dad cries WHERE—IS—MY—DAUGHTER??
I could have used a drink—or a hug, or a massage—at more than one point in Prisoners, which opens with a prayerful survivalist named Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his teenage son (Dylan Minnette) hunting deer on Thanksgiving Day. Keller and his son, along with wife Grace (Maria Bello) and six-year-old daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) live in a suburban Pennsylvania neighbourhood comprising older, slightly shabbier houses like theirs, as well as newer, slightly nicer ones, like the one owned by Nancy and Franklin Birch (Viola Davis and Terrence Howard). Despite the peaceful, secluded vibe, Keller keeps a basement stocked with extreme survival gear. 'Be ready" is his motto, and it’s delivered, very early in Prisoners, like a shot across the bow.
Within hours, the Birches and the Dovers, who gather for a Thanksgiving potluck, find themselves desperately unprepared. Anna and the Birch’s seven-year-old daughter Joy (Kyla-Drew Simmons) run off to find the emergency whistle Keller gave his daughter, but fail to return. From there Prisoners kicks into the abduction thriller’s acceleratory gear: Police and civilians don neon vests and dragnet the area; fathers gnash while mothers sit home in glazed silence; and a lone, haunted detective comes into view, his credentials sound but his personality in some doubt. So we meet Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a lonely hunter with a blinking tic and perfect record of solving crimes. Keller has a crucifix dangling from his rearview; Loki (the name a reference to the shape shifting god of Norse mythology) has one inked onto his hand, the most modest of his many tattoos, some of which he covers with shirts buttoned up to the neck.
Christian ideology plays a prominent yet superficial role in Prisoners; Villeneuve’s steamrolling genre chops leave little of thematic nuance intact. There is a clock ticking, as we who are versed in crime procedurals well know: within 24 hours the odds of finding a victim alive drop precipitously, and only get worse from there. Loki takes a viable suspect (Paul Dano at maximum creep, speaking in a light, Michael Jackson voice) into custody, but is forced to release him on lack of evidence. Keller, incensed, conducts his own reconnaissance, and involves Franklin in a torture campaign so brutal and sustained it strains credibility and defies all sympathy. 'He’s not a person anymore," Keller says of Dano, though he finds one line of the Lord’s Prayer—'as we forgive those who trespass against us"—came more easily when it was a defenseless deer at his mercy.
Despite its conflicted presentation of torture and Christian hypocrisy, Prisoners is most interesting when it begs certain questions of masculinity. Jackman and Gyllenhaal are both excellent on their own, but their scenes together have a polar charge. Jackman’s hot, animal exuberance and Gyllenhaal’s natural stillness, capable of suggesting an aggression more dangerous for being contained, animate conflicting ideas of what it means to provide, and protect. There is enough of each in the other to generate the kind of dramatic interest that elevates films like this one above generic exercise.
The textured, intuitive cinematography of Roger Deakins doesn’t hurt, either. Comparisons have already been made to that other high-end, 'missing daughter’ epic, Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River. When this film is at its pandering worst, claiming broad characterisations and cheap and cheerful plot twists as a profound meditation on relative morality, the comparison is apt (I did not care for Mystic River). Yet there are enough moments, including its brilliant, final ones, to make you want Prisoners to be as good as it thinks it is, and maybe even to remember it that way.