Prisoners is an effectively moody child-abduction potboiler that spends much of its two and a half hour running time threatening to become some sort of allegory; however, its religious themes and War On Terror imagery prove to be red herrings, and while the movie is certainly less than the sum of its referents, it nonetheless works as a formally controlled genre piece.
Making his English-language debut, Quebeçois director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) filters the thick-paperback plot—wherein two suburban girls go missing, and one of their fathers kidnaps the man he believes was responsible—through an arty sensibility that favors terse pacing and purposeful camera movements that make the action seem more enigmatic than it really is. (Attentive viewers will be able to solve most of the movie’s central crime after about an hour.) The air of mystery takes precedence over everything else; one of Villeneuve’s favorite techniques involves shooting through rain-streaked windows and focusing on the glass, turning the ostensible subjects of the frame into intriguing blurs.
Set in Pennsylvania—though actually shot in Georgia’s Piedmont region, which provides cinematographer Roger Deakins with plenty of opportunities to pan down hillsides—during the week following Thanksgiving, Prisoners stars Hugh Jackman as the vigilante father who holds one-time suspect Paul Dano captive in a decrepit apartment building while police pursue other leads. (It doesn’t help that Dano, dressed in a turtleneck and big-frame glasses, looks like the pedophile creep of suburban parents’ nightmares.)
While Jackman subjects Dano to increasingly brutal torture, top cop Jake Gyllenhaal tries to unravel the case the legal way. The presence of Gyllenhaal—combined with the movie’s chiaroscuro lighting, emphasis on destructive obsession, and many narrative dead ends—brings to mind David Fincher’s Zodiac; as if to underscore this, Gyllenhaal’s character has zodiac signs tattooed on his knuckles, and is introduced discussing the Chinese Zodiac with a waitress.
But like the movie’s allusions to the need for religious meaning (which range from an opening recitation of the Lord’s Prayer to a sign for “Valis Realty”), its Zodiac game is ultimately just a way to lend secondhand depth to a simple story. The villain isn’t obsession or vigilantism (which the movie ends up tacitly condoning), but a real, honest-to-God child-abducting bogeyman who provides the mystery with a sense of closure but exposes its Big Themes as mere pretensions. Still, it makes for a compelling viewing experience, thanks to Villeneuve’s formal chops and the uniformly strong performances, including Terrence Howard as the father of the other kidnapped girl; in one long take, framed around Jackman as he tortures Dano, Howard’s face registers a sickly sense of complicity that displays a more complex worldview than all of Jackman’s religious fervor.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, the plot details not revealed in this review, visit Prisoners’ Spoiler Space.