Prisoners is a dark, foreboding and riveting thriller, that will leave many spun by its labyrinth plot, spellbound by its strong performances and haunted by its many moral and religious complexities.
Prisoners beings with the Lord’s Prayer. It’s an appropriate way to open a movie that deals with man’s inability to contend with evil without doing evil things. Where the prayer asks our Father to “forgive us our trespasses”, for the men in Prisoners forgiveness never enters the mind, not when rage, confusion and revenge are the first reactions to a heinous crime. Yet such is the nature of mankind.
Set during winter time Pennsylvania (yet shot in Georgia), this Denis Villeneuve directed, Aaron Guzikowski written thriller is one where demons are disguised as angels and good men become monsters.
Ironically the film opens on Thanksgiving, that American holiday of friendship, family and community. It’s where high school friends Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin (Terrence Howard) bring their families together for the obligatory Thanksgiving feast. When their respective 9 year old daughters go missing, there day of domestic tranquillity is shattered.
Assigned to the case is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a dedicated cop who has successfully closed every case that has come his way. As portrayed by the vastly underrated Gyllenhaal, the curiously named Loki is a ticking time bomb of ticks and blinks, supressing a bubbling rage that intensifies with every dead end and perverted perp who comes his way during the investigation.
Rage also fills wounded father Keller, yet is projected outward towards main suspect Alex (a brilliant Paul Dano) who Keller is so convinced has abducted his daughter that he goes to brutal lengths to beat a confession out of him. This brings forth a smattering of ethical and moral questions: What would you do to protect your family? Is torture a realistic means to detract information? And (most importantly) how long can we let hatred consume us until we turn into the thing we hate?
Jackman juggles these moral minefields in an emotionally gripping performance. An actor of commanding physical presence, Prisoners features Jackman at his most dramatically intense, keeping that impressive physique of his undercover while projecting a seething, violent and dark air that breaks during crippling moments of fragility.
Back to the inclusion of the Lord’s Prayer: The role of father’s run prominent throughout Prisoners. In Keller you have the tortured father who could not protect his child. In Loki you have the guardian of a community who has sworn to protect and serve. Then there is the role of God. Not in a burning bush sense, but as a higher power to rely upon, a symbol of good within a situation of bleak evil, and as an inspiration towards acts both right and wrong.
It is not surprising to see such religiosity in a film of such uncompromising darkness. The Exorcist is proof that the two can exist. Yet while that film was stepped in the supernatural, the world that Prisoners inhabits is very real.
Villeneuve makes it all work. Although running over 2 ½ hours, Prisoners is an immersive experience throughout that stimulates on an emotional and spiritual level. Thrillers that are as wonderfully complex as this should be embraced.