“He’s not a person any more,” Hugh Jackman’s God-fearing survivalist intones at the midway point of Denis Villeneuve’s (Incendies) draining English-language debut, in reference to a man (Paul Dano) whom he believes has kidnapped his daughter. The line, steeped in emotion, if a touch heavy-handed, sums up the strength of Aaron Guzikowski’s script.
Operating in the same slate-gray neo-noir space as David Fincher’s Se7en and Zodiac, Prisoners braids a grand tale of sin and possible redemption with a knotty, intelligently plotted investigative thriller.
Jackman’s Keller Dover, a rugged type who prides himself on preparation, is blindsided when his daughter vanishes along with the child of a neighboring couple (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis). Driven to desperation by grief and the indignity of helplessness, Dover takes matters into his own hands after the police, led by Jake Gyllenhaal’s composed Detective Loki, fail to keep suspect Alex (Dano) in custody.
Giving a performance that makes Wolverine look positively cuddly, Jackman refuses to court sympathy even for a second, all rough edges and hair-trigger anger.
Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, delivers some of his most impressive work. As Loki begins to unravel a malignant web of local mystery, his increasingly haunted gaze becomes one of Prisoners’ defining images. Though he butts heads with Dover in scenes that range from expository to shattering, you sense the poised Loki is nursing his own demons.
The supporting roles are patchier; as Dover’s wife, Maria Bello is given little to do but weep, while Howard and Davis are too scarcely used. Dano, creepy and doe-eyed, fares better, as does Melissa Leo as his stoical aunt. It’s troubling that Dano’s Alex tends towards the effeminate, where Jackman and Gyllenhaal are both different shades of alpha male, but the moral lines are blurred enough for this not to rankle.
For a first-time Hollywood director, Villeneuve has a scrupulous grasp on small-town America, building a level of tension that starts out unbearable and only worsens. As torrential sheets of rain fall in grand noir tradition, Roger Deakins’ cinematography bleeds dread into every frame, the muted colour palette of blues and metals as pitiless as Guzikowski’s script.
A simmering pressure cooker of a thriller, Prisoners is an unforgiving but emotionally rewarding experience sustained by powerhouse performances, taut scripting and Villeneuve’s tonally assured direction.