From start to finish Denis Villeneuve’s psychological thriller, Prisoners, grips the viewer and takes him on a dark and disturbing journey into the abyss of lost humanity. Aaron Guzikowski’s grim script is taut and uncompromising; it offers little relief to the characters or the audience witnessing its nightmare. The tale of the kidnapping of two young girls and the hellish week spent in the crime’s aftermath questions the moral foundations of the human spirit and probes the boundaries of violence and revenge as well as their polar opposites, goodness and forgiveness.
Roger Deakins’ cinematography is awash in gray gloom from the opening scene where the protagonist, Keller Dover, and his son, Ralph, shoot a deer; this beginning sets the tone for the film’s essential question: to what lengths will a man go to save his loved ones and at what point – if ever – does violence become justified in God’s universe? The conundrum in that query, as director Villeneuve and writer Guzikowski seem to see it, is that God appears to have all but abandoned his creation; he is – (despite Dover’s lip service) – absent from Keller Dover’s bleak blue-collar world, and though he is invoked by various characters throughout the film laden with religious images, his presence seems minimal, at best.
Rescue comes, instead, in the person of one Detective Loki, a dedicated, sometimes humorless, street-wise cop with an inscrutable past – we know little of his life except that he was raised in a Catholic orphanage. Through Loki’s dogged pursuit the grisly mystery is ultimately solved. The solution, which offers some blessings, also comes laden with new sorrows. Villeneuve makes the final scene with its night lighting and eerie whistle an unanswered question. We may know what will follow, but we are not permitted the catharsis of seeing it occur, and, moreover, we do not have an explanation for the moral pain with which all the survivors, including Loki, are left.
As Keller Dover, Hugh Jackman gives a brilliantly restrained, yet white-hot intense performance. He is believably macho as the blue-collar Pennsylvania construction worker, a man whose small but precious world of family and faith is rocked by horrific events. Jackman conveys Dover’s paranoia; he is a man whose entire existence teeters precariously on the edge, his rage barely contained. What is so remarkable about the actor’s performance is that as Dover gradually becomes a monster in the wake of the kidnapping, Jackman succeeds in keeping a portion of the audience’s sympathy, or at least, understanding, so that at the film’s end when his wife proclaims him to be “an essentially good man,” we are able to concur – to see him as one of the many victims of this huge tragedy.
As his foil, Detective Loki, Jake Gyllenahaal gives a riveting performance. All dark, twitchy eyes and penetrating glances that search his subjects’ souls for clues, he makes Loki a quirky, but indomitable presence – a man who does not permit himself failure, whose instincts are subtle, and whose moral compass is true yet empathetic.
Viola Davis and Terrence Howard as the Birches, whose daughter is one of the kidnapped girls, portray the frantic couple with quiet dignity and inner anguish. Maria Bello as Dover’s wife who survives the week on valium is a believably distraught mother. Melissa Leo is an eerily deranged Holly Jones, and Paul Dano is a whispery, haunting suspect and battered victim of Dover’s rage. Len Cariou makes a brief, but memorable appearance as an alcoholic Father Patrick Dunne.
The relentlessly slow pace (two-and-one-half hours) of Prisoners adds to the tension. Villeneuve, Guzikowski, and the committed cast fearlessly take the plunge into the darkest recesses of the human psyche. The voyage is painful, but not without its moments of quiet redemption.