Nothing extraordinary happens as the determined protagonists — one vigilante-style, and one by the book — race against the clock to locate two missing little girls in the kidnap drama “Prisoners.” But as genre pictures go, it’s a rich, pleasing thriller.
Director Denis Villeneuve, whose Oscar-nominated “Incendies” dealt with violence, torture and family trauma, addresses similar issues, but in a broader Hollywood-style format. He fares impressively in the film, which is reminiscent of “Mystic River,” “In the Bedroom” and the crime dramas of David Fincher.
Set in a God-fearing, depressed Pennsylvania town, the film stars Hugh Jackman as Keller Dover, a carpenter and recovering alcoholic with a basement stocked with survivalist goods. On Thanksgiving, Keller, his wife, Grace (Maria Bello), and their family visit neighbors Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis). Dread sets in when both families’ young daughters vanish.
Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a crackerjack cop, quickly arrests Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a not-too-bright creep whose RV was seen where the girls were playing. When police release Alex for lack of evidence, Keller, believing him guilty, kidnaps him, chains him up and, using war-on-terror tactics, repeatedly tortures the young man in hopes that he’ll reveal the girls’ whereabouts.
Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski parallel Keller’s brutal interrogations with the methodical police work of Loki, who seems, uncharacteristically, to be failing. Can either man solve the case?
Like many whodunits, the movie treats characters annoyingly mysteriously to keep audiences guessing, and also gets silly. A second sinister-looking suspect, a rotting corpse and snakes come into play. Alex’s aunt (Melissa Leo), with her almost folkloric woman-in-the-woods quality, has an incongruous gothic tinge.
Still, the film manages to be a smart, suspenseful thriller rather than a cheap vigilante flick, with violence that is appropriately horrifying and not exploitative.
Villeneuve avoids stock shootouts and car chases (a foot chase is gripping), and his use of Michael Haneke-style ambiguity is rare in Hollywood thrillers. Between unremarkable plot lines, the movie explores American and human truths about aggression in homes and communities, for starters.
Primarily, though, the film succeeds on the strength of its central characters. Jackman’s intense, desperate Keller is a commanding portrait of a misguided citizen and a tormented father cracking when his effectiveness as a protector collapses.
Gyllenhaal’s tattooed, twitchy Loki proves equally satisfying, a loner with a troubled past and one of those dogged cops who make the genre enjoyable.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins, too, triumphs. His exquisitely gray skies alone are enough to provide the requisite chills.
Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis
Written by Aaron Guzikowski
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Running time 2 hours, 26 minutes