Quebec director Denis Villeneuve’s English-language debut and first studio movie, Prisoners, is subtly crafted and compelling, but it suffers from a case of split personality.
Is it a serious, adult, moral drama about violence that eventually surrenders to the formula of a genre film? Or is it a flashy, serial-killer thriller, dressed up with some overworked moral talking points? Although the two are not necessarily exclusive, the film you begin watching when the lights dim is not the same one you carry home from the theatre.
Fans of the now-45-year-old auteur know Villeneuve favours dark, fragmentary dramas about trauma and its aftershocks, imbued with a sense of almost ceremonial gravity. Over the past 13 years, his films have included Maelstrom (hit-and-run, attempted suicide), August 32nd on Earth (horrific car crash) and Polytechnique (school massacre). His international breakthrough, the Oscar-nominated Incendies, adapted from Wajdi Mouawad’s stage drama and set against the background of a Middle East civil war, unearthed a contemporary Greek tragedy behind the drone of television news.
So no surprise: Prisoners begins with signs and portents. In the rainy Pennsylvania woods, a man recites the Lord’s Prayer before urging his teenaged son to shoot a deer. The man is Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a bearded handyman with a crucifix hanging in his pickup truck, and a basement full of food in case of some future calamity.
Though Keller initially seems like a right-wing, fundamentalist wing nut, the stereotype is soon undermined when the hunters return home. Keller, his wife Grace (Maria Bello) and their son and daughter are spending Thanksgiving with their African-American best friends, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) and their two daughters. Shortly after dinner, the two youngest girls, Anna Dover and Joy Birch, go outside to play and don’t return, apparent victims of an abduction.
Suspicion falls on a unfamiliar recreational vehicle spotted on the street. The truck is soon found and the mute, terrified driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), is arrested. The police discover that Alex has the intellectual capability of a 10-year-old and there is no physical evidence linking him to the missing girls, so they release him. But Keller hears Alex whisper something in a scuffle outside the courthouse and is convinced he knows the girls’ whereabouts. Keller decides to kidnap Alex, hold him in an abandoned house and torture the truth out of him.
No one is likely to miss echoes of the “enhanced interrogation” justifications used by the Bush administration to defend the torture of prisoners. But screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski has upped the ugly ante in the ethical conundrum: First, would you torture a suspect if it meant saving your child? And second, would you torture a suspect who is himself, in a sense, a child?
Amid the trauma of losing a child, the Dovers’ domestic bonds strain: Grace dopes herself with pills, while Keller takes up the bottle he put down nine years before. The Birch family fades into the background after expressing their repulsion for, and unwillingness to stop, Keller’s scheme.
The second, more commercial, strand of Prisoners is a thriller. Villeneuve and his ace team – including the Coen brothers’ cinematographer, Roger Deakins, and Clint Eastwood’s editors, Joel Cox and Gary Roach – provide the rich visual texture and pace to slide us effortlessly through this slippery dark world, past the plot holes and red herrings, into a dream world.
This part of the movie belongs to Jake Gyllenhaal, playing a gaunt loner with a mythological name, Detective Loki, who has a compulsive blink and a creepy neck tattoo. We first meet him at a Chinese restaurant, having Thanksgiving dinner alone and trying to flirt with a waitress, when the call comes through about the missing children. It’s his character’s function to lead us through the grisly puzzle of a serial killer’s plot. When Alex disappears, Loki is not only trying to find the missing girls, but the former suspect as well. Keller and Loki meet, confront each other, and crisscross each other’s paths as they circle around the mystery.
Loki visits Alex’s aunt (Melissa Leo in a granny wig and oversized specs) and questions various sex offenders in the area, with more creepy discoveries; some are relevant, others are just indicative of an apparent pervert epidemic. Attention eventually focuses on a new suspect, another loner (David Dastmalchian), who compulsively draws mazes.
As Prisoners slides through the labyrinth, it feels progressively more hyperbolic, even parodying the form of Se7en, Silence of the Lambs and their innumerable imitators. Any pretense of naturalism, of real-life stakes, disappears. Individual sequences jump the heart rate: A furtive home invasion and a climactic car race feel as though they should end with someone waking up in a sweaty sheets.
Yet the more that Prisoners conforms to the expectations of a well-crafted movie experience, the less it seems to be about anything that matters. You may be impressed, but you’re less likely to be convinced by its resolution.