This tale of child kidnapping is a tricky little monster that wonderfully dodges being pigeonholed into a single genre, and instead claws and fights to a much deeper statement about the terrible side of human nature. It's also a mystery, a thriller, a drama in its highest form, a police procedural, and a character study about a handful of neighbors in a sleepy, dreary New England community that you may regret ever having met.
I don't mean that as a criticism of the new film PRISONERS; quite the opposite. I mean that we get to know so much about these desperate people--what makes them tick, what makes them fall to pieces--that you might feel you know too many intimate details, and that makes things eye-avertingly uncomfortable. And quite frankly, I can't remember the last time I saw a film with a high-profile cast such as this that made me feel like I was watching real human beings display so much raw, ugly emotion. It's a rare and welcome experience, but PRISONERS goes into some truly dark corners before it comes out the other side.
The time of year is Thanksgiving, and the Dover family--father Keller (Hugh Jackman), mother Grace (Maria Bello) and their three kids, including young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich)--is heading to the home of their best friends, the Birchs--Franklin (Terrence Howard), Nancy (Viola Davis) and their kids, including youngest daughter Eliza (Zoe Soul). When the two youngest girls head back to the Dover's home, they never return, and everyone starts to get worried. When it's decided that they have either run off or been taken, they call in the police, led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), to investigate.
The first suspect brought in is Alex Jones (Paul Dano, out creeping out all of his other creepy roles), a mentally slow man who owns an RV similar to the one the girls were playing on earlier in the day. There's no trace of the girls in the van, and Alex doesn't appear to know anything about them, so the police let him go into the custody of his mother, Holly (Melissa Leo). But Keller isn't convinced of his innocence, especially after a quiet remark Alex makes as he's being released that apparently only Keller heard.
What happens next is probably going to separate those who embrace this film from those who absolutely reject it. Keller kidnaps Alex and chains him up in an abandoned building that Keller's late father left him to renovate. Filled with the worst kind of anger and fear, Keller proceeds to beat and otherwise torture Alex until his entire face is swollen beyond recognition and his body mangled; this goes on for days. And it's clear even from his police interrogation that Alex shuts down when he's scared, so words aren't coming to him as Keller yells questions at him about the whereabouts of the girls. That's assuming he even knows, which seems less and less likely at the police continue to investigate.
From French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (whose Incendies got an Oscar nomination not long ago for Best Foreign Language Film) working from a script by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband), Neighbors is an exercise in watching all social values and norms crumble as these parents are faced with an unthinkable dilemma. The town of Brockton, Massachusetts, in this case, stands in for that piece of America willing to put aside human rights to save lives. The question is raised, "What would you do if it were you child?", and I think most of us know the answer. Keller isn't painted as a villain in the movie; he's just the one person willing to push aside what he knows is right and wrong in the short term for hopefully long-term positive results. But his deepest regret comes when he begins to realize he probably has the wrong man but he's essentially gone too far to stop.
But PRISONERS isn't just about Keller; it's also just as much about Detective Loki, an intricately drawn character whose most interesting traits are revealed gradually during the course of the film. According to those who know him, he's never not solved a case. So when he's forced to deal with understandably irrational, emotion parents, we catch him rolling his eyes at them and saying, "Aw shit" when he sees one of them coming toward him yet again. This is Gyllenhaal at his absolute best; I haven't seen him dig into a character like this since Zodiac, and this might be an even more impressive performance. He's a simple, meticulous man, who knows that if he's left alone, he can do his job. Hell, he even inadvertently solves another case while he's looking into the whereabouts of the missing girls. But he also makes mistakes, one major one in fact that leads to a tragedy that plays out right in front of him.
PRISONERS runs right around two-and-a-half hours, and that may simply be too much misery for some, but I think most of you are going to be too impressed by this collection of some of the most reliable, impressive actors working today. You don't put Davis, Bello, Leo and Howard together in a single movie and get something bland. Thankfully director Villeneuve doesn't allow it to become a case of actors trying to out-emote each other. For every moment where Jackman gets to explode at anyone who enters his line of sight, there are twice as many scenes where characters are expressing their raw emotions by dialing it back a bit. It's an impressive balance that strikes just the right note in almost every shot.
The central mystery about where the girls are, whether they're still alive, and who has them runs slightly in danger of becoming less important as the film goes on, and I more or less had a few plot points figured out long before the big reveals start happening. Still, the story is complex without getting complicated, and above all else, it's satisfying and, yes, even entertaining. PRISONERS is about people making bad choices and the devastating consequences that inevitably follow. And I promise that if you make the choice to see it, you will be devastated. I think awards season may have just kicked off. God help us. But you couldn't ask for a stronger opening salvo.