Keller (Hugh Jackman), the protagonist of Prisoners, is a hope-for-the-best but prepare-for-the-worst type. In the basement of his home, he keeps enough supplies and weapons to survive an apocalypse. He’s a blue-collar, hands-on kind of guy, but he’s also a devoted father and husband and even a spiritual man. When he takes his son out deer hunting for the first time, he teaches the boy to quietly recite The Lord’s Prayer before pulling the trigger. Played by Jackman with great tenderness and heart, Keller is a commanding, funny person — the sort you’d love to have as a friend but would not want as an enemy.
During Thanksgiving dinner at the home of their neighbors the Bryces (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), Keller and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) realize their 6-year-old daughter has disappareared along with the Bryces’ 7-year-old girl. A frantic search of both houses leads nowhere. The only clue was a run-down RV spotted earlier in the day parked on their block, which has since vanished.
Assigned to the case is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is eating Thanksgiving dinner by himself at a Chinese restaurant when the call comes in. The detective catches a lucky break, finding a suspicious RV whose driver immediately tries to escape but crashes instead. Driver Alex (Paul Dano), a peculiar man who sports Jeffrey Dahmer eyeglasses and an inscrutable facial expression, is brought in for questioning. But the authorities quickly determine Alex has an IQ of 10, and after scouring his camper truck for forensic evidence and finding nothing, they have no choice but to release him to the custody of his aunt (Melissa Leo). But if Alex is innocent, why did he try to flee from police when they approached his vehicle?
Prisoners marks the Hollywood debut of French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, best known for 2010’s Oscar-nominated Incendies. The movie comes on like gangbusters, gripping you with its immediacy and speed (if it were a book, the screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski would be a maniacal page-turner). Gyllenhaal, exuding a kind of street-smart authority he had never played before, embodies the detective’s dilemma of wanting to rush through leads to find the missing girls, but taking the time to carefully follow clues in order to not miss a critical detail.
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But Keller isn’t quite as patient. His grief-stricked wife blames him for not having found his daughter (“You made me feel so safe,” Grace tells him. “You told me you could protect us from anything.”) And Keller is also convinced Alex is putting on an act and knows where his daughter is. So he takes matters into his own hands, with horrifying results.
Prisoners explores the subject of vigilante justice from a fresh perspective, making the crusaders ordinary people who have no stomach for violence or torture but must force themselves to cross moral lines for the sake of their loved ones. And the movie makes the dilemma increasingly intense by keeping the viewers guessing about Alex along with everyone else: When he takes his dog for a walk, he stops to briefly torture the animal in a shockingly sadistic manner, then continues on his walk as if nothing had happened. Is he really a diabolical killer? Or he is just, as the authorities believe, simply a severely mentally challenged person?
Shot by the great Roger Deakins, Prisoners looks fantastic, whether it’s a strangely unsettling close-up of a tree or a sensational sequence in which a character is speeding to the hospital, dangerously weaving through traffic at high speeds. The movie is filled with religious iconography and subtexts that are used for more than window dressing (a priest becomes a small but critical part of the story), and there’s a suspenseful sequence in which Loki investigates the home of a suspect that achieves David Fincher- Seven levels of creepiness. Too bad, then, that after two hours of such relentless tension, Prisoners starts revealing its secrets to progressively hokier effect. In its final 30 minutes, Prisoners leaves the realm of frightening plausibility and edges into horror-movie turf, turning what had previously felt like genuine human evil into a monster that is easy to explain away. The sudden shift feels jarring and fake — it’s incredibly frustrating — but none of it negates the phenomenal performances by Jackman and Gyllenhaal, playing two men racing toward the same finish line but using radically different methods to get there.