PRISONERS is a dark, brooding, and intense film, and there are few moments of respite. Denis Villeneuve (INCENDIES) and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski have no reservations in taking the audience through bleak terrain, and at times it feels like the filmmakers mean to abandon us there. As a parent, especially, I responded to PRISONERS, because it goes deep into any parent's worst fears - the abduction of their child. PRISONERS explores what it means to watch the last shreds of hope and morality drain away, and what's more, the characters in the movie are helpless to stop it.
Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) isn't a wealthy man, but he and his family get on well enough. Keller has a wife (Maria Bello) that loves him, and two children, Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), who adore and respect him. His best friend, Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) and his wife Nancy (Viola Davis) are better off financially, but share all they have with the Kellers, and their daughter Eliza (Zoe Soul) is best of friends with Anna. Keller is a devout man, who has a strong moral compass and faith, but he's also a prepared man, and perhaps a little too eager to believe that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. His basement, locked away from the children, is full of survival gear, and "Be prepared" is Keller's motto for just about everything.
On Thanksgiving, the Dovers and the Birches celebrate together. Anna and Eliza go to the Dover's house, but when they do not return, both families begin to search for them. It soon becomes obvious that the girls have been abducted, and soon Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is called in on the case. When a suspicious RV that was in the neighborhood at the time is spotted, Loki and his team pull it over to discover Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a simpleton with a ten-year-old's mind who lives with his aunt (Melissa Leo). Keller is certain that Alex knows where the children are, but Loki isn't so sure. As the days that the children are missing grow longer, Keller becomes more desperate and enraged, and Loki must race against time to try to understand what has happened and to find the young girls.
What makes PRISONERS stand out is the twists and turns that the story takes us, and we see good men forced to confront their own demons and their own senses of morality. What would a truly desperate person do? Loki has seen this all before, and he trusts in the system to work, but in this case the system seems to be working against him. Gyllenhaal plays Loki as a man uncomfortable in his own skin, all twitching and nerves. He does terrific work, and in this day and age when every character action seemingly has to be explained away in motivation, the lack of knowledge about Loki's background is refreshing, and the audience relies on Gyllenhaal's performance to take us through the dark streets of the movie. Loki knows what he's doing, but as Keller's anger threatens to undo his work, Loki must decide whether he can step over the line to find these children.
Hugh Jackman's Keller is driven by anger and fear, and through those emotions becomes something he never imagined himself becoming. Jackman is convincing and at times even frightening as a man driven to his sanity's end by the loss of his child, and we come to realize that for Keller, it's about more than the loss of his daughter, but of the loss of the fragile control he had over his world. For Keller, control is everything - it's all he has, and he believes that simply being prepared for the worst means that he can ride out any storm. As Keller becomes more desperate, he goes more over the edge, and Jackman makes his rage a palpable thing, and unpleasant to look upon. The audience may find their own sympathies shifting as Keller does more horrible deeds, or they may agree with every decision that Keller makes. It's a litmus test of characterization, and as Keller gets ever closer to discovering what happened, the audience is forced into questioning just how much of their own morality they can set aside when their hope dwindles day by day.
The other performances are top-notch, especially Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, who seem to be on firmer moral ground but are just as desperate as Keller to get their child back. Franklin is more reluctant to go down the dark roads that Keller travels, but as time and circumstance wear him down, he becomes just as morally complicit, and Nancy must also share the burden of Keller's rage. Paul Dano does his usual great work as Alex, a character whose appearance and demeanor may be deceiving, but Dano plays him unflinchingly, and at times makes for difficult viewing.
Director Denis Villeneuve is not afraid to take us into places of deep despair and horror, but this is horror of a more personal nature. PRISONERS asks us how far would we truly go, and Villeneuve doesn't hold back on the emotion and the terror of the situation. In that way, PRISONERS is very immersive (at times uncomfortably so), and Aaron Guzikoski's script is wisely not so much interested in the why of things as it is in the moral repercussions of the events of the movie. When the film does get to the why, it loses focus; we're less interested in the reasons behind the abductions as we are in the effects it has on everyone surrounding them.
PRISONERS is a long movie, and there are times when we feel that length, but Villeneuve isn't interested in getting to the next plot point as quickly as possible. He is more interested in making the audience feel the emotion, the tension, the sheer misery of waiting for any sign of hope, and in that regard PRISONERS is an absorbing film experience (although one audiences might not care to repeat). It reminded me of the cinema of the 1970s, where motivations were morally ambiguous, and characters were allowed to go off the beaten path if it meant exploring important themes and ideas. PRISONERS is riveting cinema, directed with skill, sensitivity, and intelligence.