Amid a parade of sequels and retreads, it’s refreshing to find an original idea like Prisoners, an ambitious and provocative thriller that proves the possibility of generating suspense without resorting to emotional manipulation, and getting under the skin of the audience without settling for shock tactics.
Bolstered by a first-rate cast and a tightly wound script, it’s a gut-wrenching story of a suspected child abduction and the tragic aftermath of an investigation gone wrong.
The story takes place in a snowy suburb, where two families are sharing a holiday gathering when each discovers their young daughter is missing. Panic sets in among the parents, and a tenacious detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned to the case.
Each of the four parents begins reacting in different ways. Keller (Hugh Jackman) turns into a vengeful vigilante who thinks he’s found the perpetrator in a dim-witted man (Paul Dano) who was spotted near the scene, even though the police can’t uncover much evidence. Keller’s wife (Maria Bello) becomes hysterical and withdrawn.
Their neighbors (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) are more passive about their suspicions and willing to cooperate with police, but as days pass without an arrest, they sway toward Keller’s acts of frantic desperation regardless of the legal consequences.
The film marks a visually confident Hollywood debut for Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Incendies), who keeps the mystery compelling for the duration of the extended running time.
Meanwhile, the screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) is less concerned with the procedural aspects of the case than he is with the psychology of the characters affected by it — how during white-knuckle times, the lines can sometimes become blurred between good and evil, guilty and innocent, suspicion and paranoia.
Although Prisoners becomes more conventional in its final hour, when the clues and red herrings become more obvious while the twists begin to stretch credibility, it remains gripping because of the realistic grounding of its characters and the raw vulnerability in the performances. Plus, it has the audacity not to tack on a crowd-pleasing climax.
The film offers a fresh take on familiar themes, one that’s ultraviolent and difficult to watch at times. The riveting result is both morally complex and emotionally exhausting.
Rated R, 153 minutes.